Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Uncle Tom's Cabin and Advent

Uncle Tom & Eva
Uncle Tom’s Cabin has more heroes and more villains than any book I have before read, and, for the most part, the characters are consistent with one of these two roles. Two of the most endearing and beloved characters – Tom and Eva – are clearly both heroes in the story. The reader grows to love Tom: a character who is unrelenting in his willingness to sacrifice his own self, security, and safety for that of others and for his Lord Jesus Christ. But the reader also falls in love with little Evaline St. Clair: a young girl who is sickened by the inhumanity of slavery and is willing to do something about it. Little Miss Eva is constantly seen playing with those whom her culture dictates as less than human.

There are so many things that could be said about this book (and so many have already – Abraham Lincoln attributed the beginning steps to emancipation to this narrative), but one scene in particular grasped my attention this Advent season. If you have not read the book, and you plan to in the future, you may not want to read on. Otherwise, please reflect with me on this Advent image.

Chapter 26

Tom, at last, would not sleep in his room, but lay all night in the outer verandah, ready to rouse at every call…"You know it says in Scripture, 'At midnight there was a great cry made. Behold, the bridegroom cometh.' That's what I'm spectin now, every night, Miss Feely, - and I couldn't sleep out o' hearin, no ways."
"Why, Uncle Tom, what makes you think so?"
"Miss Eva, she talks to me. The Lord, he sends his messenger in the soul. I must be thar, Miss Feely; for when that ar blessed child goes into the kingdom, they'll open the door so wide, we'll all get a look in at the glory, Miss Feely."

We have here the image of Tom waiting, without regard to image or comfort, outside of little Eva’s room , all so that he might get a glimpse of the bridegroom comin’ at Eva’s death. Compare this with the reading from Romans 13 from Advent 1:
11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near.
Uncle Tom knew that he would see something remarkable. He was living in a state of anxious expectation, hoping to merely get a glimpse of the glorious life to which his friend Eva was journeying to. How much more for those of us who believe that this kingdom has already come? Do we not walk everyday with the hope of the reconciling/redeeming work of a Savior?

The image of Tom lying outside of Eva’s room in eager expectation is engrained in my mind as an image for Advent this year. Advent traditionally invites us into dual hope: a remembered hope that Israel had for its Messiah to come, and a hope for the final coming of the kingdom of Christ in the future. Let us also hope to see the door of heaven opening up here and now, as we seek to share with the poor, the oppressed, and the widow that “the kingdom of God has come near.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Missional Learning Commons 2010

I often hear suggestions of podcasts or lectures to listen to, but rarely take the time to actually listen to them. Given the monotony of the data entry required at the job for the time being, I was able to listen to the Missional Learning Conference audio files in their entirety throughout the day (each lecture is only 12 minutes long). Although your time would not be wasted listening to any of the lectures, a few stood out to me:

  • Jon Berbaum on Desiring the Kingdom - Audio

  • Cyd Holsclaw on Discipleship Backstage - Audio

  • Mark Van Steenwyk on Discipleship in the Shadow of Empire - Audio

  • Dave Fitch on Leadership is Submission - Audio

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Light of a Living Gospel

"This, indeed, was a home,--home,--a word that George had never yet known a meaning for; and a belief in God, and trust in His providence, began to encircle his heart, as, with a golden cloud of protection and confidence, dark, misanthropic, pining, atheistic doubts, and fierce despair, melted away before the light of a living Gospel, breathed in living faces, preached by a thousand unconscious acts of love and good-will, which, like the cup of cold water given in the name of a disciple, shall never lose their reward." Uncle Tom's Cabin 138-139

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Gaining An Appreciation For Novels: Suggestions?

I have had the opportunity to read many wonderful books over the past few months, and surprisingly, the majority of them have been novels. Reading used to be an event of the day: a blocked out two-three hour retreat spent marking the books' margins and jotting down notes. Since Lydia has been born, reading is a filler in the few down times and before bed. Therefore, novels and narrative based writing have seemed to fit the availability, and I have thoroughly enjoyed each that I have read recently.

Brothers karamazov The first is Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The character development in this book is incredible. You are invited into the lives of four brothers who, although share the same father, have entirely different worldviews as a result of entirely different childhoods. It is a classic novel on the dilemma of human thought and response to one's surroundings. I found that I both loved and hated things about the brothers, as well as the secondary characters and the abusive father. Dostoyevsky raises issues of faith and culture, sin and forgiveness, love and hatred, and lies and truth. It's a book that someone could read twenty times, and each time find a new story within the story.

Watership down While many were introduced to this novel in high school (or earlier), I did not hear of it until reading Stanley Hauerwas' A Community of Character. Hauerwas uses Richard Adams Watership Down to illustrate the importance of memory and remembering for a community's politic. I was most intrigued by the forward to the book, where the author says something to the extent of, "No matter how my book has been used in political theory, it was originally written as a children's tale for my daughters." Yet it does not take long to see why this book is used in political theory courses, as it traces a community of rabbits as they journey from one strange community to the next. I must note that this book has given an image to leadership within the church that I had been unable to envision before. As someone who feels many of the missional church postures, I have been an advocate of flattening leadership without the loss of leadership. While this sounds good in theory, I had not seen it enacted all-too-often and I had not an image of what this "relying on the gifts of one another" might actually look like. Watership Down provides this image, as we watch the rabbit-community's reliance upon one another: reliance upon the visionary rabbit, the thinker-rabbit, the storyteller-rabbit, and the strong-rabbit. Each rabbit had a role in the community that was essential for its survival, yet not one rabbit was privileged above the rest, or had a right to say, "but the buck stops here!"

Jonathanstrange Most recently I have finished Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This book was recommended by many close friends, and upon learning that it was a story about magic in Europe, I became even more intrigued (I seem to be a sucker for these types of books, whether it be Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings). This book is filled with layers. At times I thought it was about the power of esoteric knowledge to create those who are elite and those who are common. While this hooked me for awhile, I then became frustrated that this book provided neither an epic-storyline reminiscent of other fantasy novels, nor a darkness that often accompanies these types of books. But then it made me think about theology, and how we too-often approach theology as a language of the elite, enclaving ourselves as a group of those "inside" and leaving everyone else "outside": this book smacks this arrogant posturing as we see magic come back to the everyday lives of individuals and England as a whole. Finally, the final third of the book provides the type of epic tale that I had hoped for all along.

I could easily write essays on each of these books and the impact that they have had on my thoughts over the past few months. While it is easy to think that I am missing something by not focusing on non-fiction works, I have been blessed to be growing through the truthfulness and impact of good storytelling. Maybe what I have needed for a long time is immersion into fiction. The knowledge that I have long-pursued resides in facts and truths, which when understood, can then be enacted upon and heralded to the world: the story is thus the result of having our facts correct. But as I continue with many of the post-modern sentiments and seek to live amidst and among people whose lives are stories, I realize that stories are not the result, but the only way that we can know anything.

So with all that said, anyone have any suggestions for some good novel reading?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gathered around fear: Is it worth it?

I remember the first time I ever watched a horror film. I was somewhere around the age of 13, when I joined a neighborhood friend to watch the movie "It" (sorry mom, this is probably the first time I have ever confessed this to you). I remember being terrified by the clown who existed in the dream world as well as the real. I remember biking back home with enhanced senses: constantly looking over my shoulder, listening for any sounds out of the ordinary, and making sure I avoided any drain holes where horrific clown arms may reach out and grab me.

I was entranced by these horror films through my first few years of college. The horror series "Saw" captured my interest by surprising the viewer with disturbing images and shocking endings.

Over the last two weeks I have heard a number of advertisements on the radio that promoted a message such as the following: "Come to the so and so horror show where you will be so terrified that you will not sleep for days." This is supposed to make me want to come there? I'm supposed to spend the few dollars that we make every week so that we can be so disturbed that we will not be able to sleep?

I don't often post a blog with the sole purpose of a question, but I have racked my brain over the last few weeks to figure out why watching horror movies and entering into scenarios created to invoke fear are desirable past times? Am I missing something?

As Jamie and I went down to bed tonight, we heard a loud noise somewhere in the neighborhood: this was well over two hours ago, and I am still awake wondering what the cause of those noises was. This is a horrible feeling, and I hate it! Why do we willfully subject ourselves to paranoia and fear? Do we so desire to feel "something," that we settle for fear and angst? Or am I missing it and being a party-pooper on Halloween? Don't get me wrong, I understand the desire to get together with people, dress up and be united; but at what expense? If anyone has any input to these questions, please chime in!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The lamentor who can still see green

The time between Pentecost and Advent marks the longest season in the Christian calendar. This period is often referred to as ordinary or common time, although these terms can cause great misunderstanding if they are used in a way to refer to time that is mundane or trivial. Instead, ordinary time refers not to a descriptive of the season, but to ordinal counting: a way of counting time. With the color green as the hallmark of the season, many churches focus on God's mission in this world and our awareness of growth and redemption happening all around.

Jamie and I have been swimming in the "greenness" of our lives over the last 22 weeks. We have been challenged to ask in every situation - the easy and the difficult, the good and the bad - "What is God doing in this?" When we have been at our best and have been able to ask this question, we find that we are slower to judge, more receptive towards listening, slower to act selfishly, and more hopeful about the situation. This is a far cry from stating that every easy (or difficult) situation is directly scripted by God (i.e. "God gave me a million dollars!" or "God gave me cancer"), but that in every situation we are to respond first as a receptive listener who might actually hear something, and then as an active participant who might actually be called to do something.

The lectionary for this week calls for a reading of the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is filled with some of the most vivid descriptives of a land and people who see very little green. Yet the author never gives way to complete despair:

"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 'The Lord is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him.'" - 3:22-24

...this after he says that "he has made my teeth grind on gravel" (3:16) and "I have forgotten what happiness is" (3:17). This author was living as a participant in a story, a story that told of the One true God who had brought a people out of Egypt and into an abundant land, a people who were chosen to be set apart as a beaming light to the nations, a people who would never be forgotten. Even when darkness was all around - as it certainly was when their lands were taken over, their God mocked, and their children hungry - green was not forgotten. Yahweh had proven His everlasting covenant-commitment with this people time and time again, and the lamentor(s) would not be shackled into complete despair.

And so we gather every week to continue in the proclamation of this God who does not fail and does not give up on the restoration of all things. We gather to proclaim Christ crucified for the sake of the world and to proclaim our commitment to being a part of this peaceful kingdom. We gather to encourage one another to see the green that is all around us, and after receptively listening to the Holy Spirit, to pick up a brush and join in the great masterpiece. And we are thus formed to be able to ask the question, "What is God doing in this situation?" even when darkness seems to squelch all other colors.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Writing Not to Express, But to Learn

I used to believe that people who write do so because they have something to say and know something about that something. Sure, there may be difficulty in choosing words, structuring sentences, and arranging paragraphs, but the main idea is already known and thus just needs to be described. Therefore, I perceived writing not as an artistic development or process-to-achieve-understanding, but as the final step in laying down what is already known.

This assumption about writing often kept the white pages in Microsoft Word as white pages. The thought was always, "How can I write about something, when I don't know what that something is, don't know what to say about it, and don't know what good it would be for anyone to read about it?" As I've grown to understand my own learning process, I realize that writing is not a final step, but one of the first steps required to walk on when forming coherent thoughts and opinion.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to read Stanley Hauerwas' Hannah's Child where he summed up this same idea:

Writing is hard and difficult work because to write is to think. I do not have an idea and then find a way to express it. The expression is the idea. So I write because writing is the only way I know how to think.

I recently remarked to someone that I feel as if I have not been thinking very deeply over the past few months. I attributed this to busyness and a mind consumed with a newborn in the house. There is certainly truth in this, but the larger factor (I am realizing) is that I have not been writing at all. I hope to engage regularly in the process of writing not because I have a lot to say, but because by engaging the discipline, I will hopefully think deeply and be continually transformed.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Learning that we have hands...

My daughter is just beginning to realize that she has hands. She surprises herself when they accidentally appear in her line of vision, and then she is captivated by them for extended periods of time; she has yet to realize that these are useful to achieve her desires of sucking, grabbing, and holding.

That she has to learn this - that she exists in a body - is a beautiful thing. Jamie and I pray for her future and all the things that she will face and for all the lessons that will be learned through them. But before she can learn about love, and friendship, and forgiveness, and beauty, she has to learn that she exists.

As Christians, we make certain proclamations about the world that are otherwise unknown to the world. In the same way that Lydia is discovering a truthfulness and a reality of her own bodily existense - a realization that will birth an entire new way of life - so we believe Jesus has revealed an entirely new way of life. We are invited into this through the call, "Repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand." And when we respond to this call, we do not simply sit back and remark about these realities ("Oh, I have hands, NEATO!", or any number of doctrinal statements that quickly become the essence of faith) but instead are invited to practice the realities which have been revealed, and therefore become transformed by their truthfulness.

Many of the realities of this kingdom come to mind:
  • Learning to forgive

  • Practicing a posture of peacefulness

  • Openness towards strangers

  • Particular care for the poor, the lonely, and the oppressed

  • Giving possessions away

  • Regularly communing and fellowshipping with others.

Lydia's journey of discovering her bodily existence is a beautiful journey. She will live differently as she realizes she has hands, feet, and the ability to communicate with others. Everything will be new. May our eyes be opened to the kingdom come near through Jesus Christ, and therefore accept the call to repent and believe, living forward with eyes opened to the truthfulness of a world being redeemed and restored.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Listen to Their Stories - Desmond Tutu on NPR

I had the joy and privilege to spend the morning listening to a recorded interview with Desmond Tutu via NPR.  I know very little of former Archbishop Desmond Tutu's biography and contribution to the implementation of democracy within a country plagued by apartheid, but was impacted greatly today by his answer to the question, "Can you give us an example of how Scripture was relevant?  or written specifically for your situation [in South Africa]?"  Former Archbishop Tutu answered confidently:

 "Apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance -  skin color, ethnicity.  What gave value to persons is that we are created in the image of God, and that each one of us is a God-carrier.  No matter what our physical circumstances may be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth."

If apartheid was a story of power over persons of difference, then Scripture acted for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a story of unity and oneness; it was a different type of story, one that gave value to all persons, because of their createdness as image-bearers of God.

But the greatest part of the interview - the part that will last with me for some time - was the emphasis on storytelling as an act of healing for the oppressed and the voiceless.  Tutu says that

We had this remarkable process of truth and reconciliation commission.  When people who had suffered grievously, who you could have said had a divine right to being angry and being filled with a lust for revenge, came and told their stories, and frequently you wanted to take off your shoes because you are standing on holy ground.  

These "righteous offendees" - when given the space to tell their stories - were healed as they spoke and told their story.  So often the worst offense a person can experience is not physical or emotional pain, but the pain of being silenced.  How many people within the various sub-cultures of the West have experienced this same silencing?  And how often have those claiming Christ as "Lord of the oppressed," served as the ones who silence such voices?

I hope that, as one who believes that the reconciliation of the entire cosmos is found in Christ, that I might become a person who gives ear to those who too often speak to brick walls.  I pray that, as a community in Westmont IL, we may slow the pace of our lives enough to listen to forgotten stories.  I pray that, through the most simple acts of having a conversation, we might give someone the gift of being heard.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pluralism - Empty Virtues of Tolerance and Respect, or Not?

Unityindiversity  I recently began reading Stephen Prothero's newest book, God Is Not One, after hearing about its release and a corresponding blog discussion set to begin over at Jesus Creed.  I was intrigued at the author's motive for writing such a book.  Closing the introduction to the book, Prothero says the following:

One of the most common misconceptions about the world's religions is that they plumb the same depths, ask the same questions.  They do not.  Only religions that see God as all good ask how a good God can allow millions to die in tsunamis.  Only religions that believe in souls ask whether your soul exists before you are born and what happens to it after you die.  And only religions that think we have one soul ask after "the soul" in the singular.  Every religion, however, asks after the human condition.  Here we are in these human bodies.  What now?  What next?  What are we to become? (Prothero, God Is Not One, 24).

The American-pluralistic ideology functions under the belief that, if we can find that which is common-among people of competing beliefs, then we will eventually live in peace with one another: Muslims with Christians; Jews with Hindus; Buddhists with Confucians.  This pluralism requires a politically-liberal stance, where any of the "private" attributes of being a person or community - beliefs, cultural practices, stories, accidents of history - are kept at arms length away from public policy formation.  This is known as the "veil of ignorance," where it is acceptable to holds these beliefs and practices, but only as long as they are kept within the "private life."  According to this political liberal agenda which creates much of the pluralism of American culture, it is only then that we will be able to esteem such values as peace, justice, freedom, and equality.  

The issue that I see with this, and the point that Prothero is making, is that if we eliminate these beliefs and cultural practices, we are eliminating the very essence of who a person is: all in favor of a cookie-cutter uniformity.  And in fact, the elimination of these differences is impossible, because we are not even asking the same questions.  Prothero states the all religions sense that something is wrong with the way things are and that something needs to be done to make things right.  However, these eight major (competing) religions do not agree on either the problem or the solution.  

The masking of differences between persons makes words like tolerance and respect "empty virtues."  Real tolerance and respect is not ignorance of our differences, but is an acknowledgement that the most important things in our lives - our beliefs, our customs, our rituals - may be different and even competing.  Tolerance and respect are developed virtues in lasting relationships formed out of a stance of humility.  

I am very excited to continue learning about other religions.  However, I have felt uncomfortable reading about these religious beliefs and practices from such an objective/scholarly perspective of Stephen Prothero.  Really putting his thoughts into practice requires, as I said, the "work" of humbly building relationships with people over time. 

Monday, July 12, 2010

Was Jesus' Teaching of Non-Violence a "New Strategy" to Win?

I am afraid that I did not communicate as clearly as I had hoped to in my previous posting.  My goal was to show that Jesus was revealing something about the character of God in Matthew 5:38-42.  In this passage, when Jesus instructs his followers to "turn the other cheek" and "give also your cloak" and "go an extra mile," he was not instructing his followers to adhere to a more "morally acceptable" way of defeating such "human enemies," but instead was showing that "this is life in the kingdom of God."  In this kingdom life, the question is not "Am I more morally justified if I achieve victory through non-violence or violence?' but "How will we live knowing that victory is already won?" and that it is not a victory over other persons, but over the powers of darkness, sin, and ultimately - death.

We are immersing ourselves in the book of James throughout the summer at Life on the Vine and in Westmont, and the text for the morning was James 3:1-12.  The emphasis was primarily on James 3:6, where we are duly warned of the power of language and words to either be used under the "reign of God" or the "rule of evil"; language is rarely, if ever, neutral.  Instead, language has the power to create, or to destroy; to encourage, or to condemn; to bring peace, or to bring war.  Preaching at LOV is never an isolated event, but rather is part of a liturgy that collectively calls and shapes us into transformation for the mission of God in the world.  Therefore, after concluding the message, the preacher always leads the congregation in corporate prayer as a time to confess sin and engage the spoken word as co-participants and members of the body.  All that to say, that there was no shortage of prayers from people who realized the truth of James' warning about the tongue.

Words were spoken this morning that struck me personally, and left me feeling a need to amend that previous blog post with this one.  Each week we gather corporately for participation at the Eucharistic table.  The words that struck me came just before receiving the bread and the cup:

"Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me."  In the same way he  took the cup also, after supper,  saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." - 1 Corinthians 11:23b-26

"On the night when he was betrayed..."

  • he took revenge

  • he retaliated

  • he slandered

  • he violently humiliated his opponent

  • he non-violently humiliated his opponent


"On the night when he was betrayed..."

  • he took a loaf of bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it

These were not mere lessons in morality.  Jesus was not urging his followers to "do" something that He was unwilling to do.  In fact, it was never about "doing" anything, but about being: becoming "like Christ."

I had not intended to open up a violence vs. non-violence or pacifism debate, nor did I pretend to be speaking any practical words to international conflict scenarios.  My intention of that post - and this - was to show that Jesus called followers to become like himself, not because it worked in rearranging WHO was in power, because this is life characterized in the kingdom of God: a kingdom where the following are the two greatest commandments:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40, NRSV)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Should Non-Violence Be Used to Shame Someone?

Jesusface I vividly remember being surprised and frustrated by Jesus' words in Matthew 5:38-42.  My earliest memory of interacting with this passage (although I'm sure I had heard it previously) was in middle school.  Already by this time, I had studied martial arts enough to know that, when someone throws a punch at you, you have only a few options:

  1. Side step the punch, in order to counter punch

  2. Block the punch, in order to counter punch

  3. Absorb the punch by tensing your muscles, in order to counter punch

But in this passage, Jesus is instructing his followers to react differently to violence:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." (NRSV) 

These words of Jesus were frustrating, because I had been raised in a system of belief that taught that our most distinctive characteristics of being human were our individual rights.  When these rights were violated, justice was to be sought.  I was a firm believer in lex talionis: an eye for an eye.  

These frustrations lasted until my sophomore year of high school, when I spent a week at one of my favorite places of childhood: Green Lake Bible Camp.  I remember that this passage came up in discussion one day while in the middle of a bible study.  The chaplain at the camp for the summer shed a new revelation that made me appreciate the wisdom of Jesus' teaching about lex talionis.

She stated that Jesus' was not advocating a "get steam rolled by the enemy" mentality - ignoring the justice due to the offender - but was instead teaching a non-violent means of humiliating the perpetrator.  With her interpretation (which many people hold today), when Jesus says, "if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also," he was not laying down his pride, but was instead humiliating and shaming the offender.  The logic went something like this: if you turned your cheek after being slapped, you were forcing the perpetrator to strike you in a way that showed that they were "out of control."  The same logic of "shaming" the offender in a non-violent form has been used for the "giving of the cloak" and also the "going an extra mile" examples. (see David Ewarts one page summary on this understanding here).

The point she was making was that Jesus was a wise teacher who knew how to defeat and humiliate his opponents without using violence or violent resistance.  

I remember liking this idea.  I could still be the victor, AND I would be in line with the greatest moral teacher of all time!

As the years have passed since receiving this lesson in moral combat, I have come to question its validity.  Jesus' is not teaching a moral lesson about how to humiliate someone else, but is instead describing God's character.  God does not teach us to love our enemies so that they will be shamed by our generosity, but teaches us to love our enemies because he loves them.  Jesus was not teaching a "less violent" way to invert power roles, but was instead showing that the kingdom of God is without such roles.  

Jesus did not die in order to drive the final moral dagger into the hearts of the Pharisees and unbelievers: he died on the cross because it was the cosmic act of God's giving-ness to reconcile and restore creation.

Let us not play the games of the world, seeking power over one another via violent or non-violent means.  Jesus did not come to give lessons of morality, teaching us more holy ways of ruling over one another.  Jesus became human, died, and was raised for the reconciliation of all things.  Thanks be to God. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Just Some Thoughts and Prayer Requests


Lydia Ruth is two weeks old today.  If you read my earlier post, you already know about the roller coaster ride she was on, screaming her beautifully healthy lungs as she entered into this world.  Her mother and I have also been riding a roller coaster over the last two weeks, as we have sought to move into a new home and new community, all of which began on the day of her discharge from the hospital.

Becoming a father has been an incredible gift.  Every pastor and wise person that I have known has preached a message that went something like: "becoming a parent will open your eyes to previously locked and inaccessible wisdom" (or something like that).  Jamie shared at our first church service in Westmont that she is learning how to trust God each night as she lays Lydia down into the cradle and attempts to get some sleep herself.  When talking about Lydia, Jamie made the comment that, "I can't believe you can love someone so much in such a short amount of time."  When I asked what she meant by 'love' in this statement, she replied, "Wanting to care for, provide for, and protect."  We are learning (or should I say, "experiencing") a type of love that is so much different than the "loves" we have previously experienced.

That is why, when we gathered for worship on Sunday, the icon hit so hard.  The icon was Vecellio Tiziano's "Sacrifice of Isaac" (1542-44), visually depicting the shocking story of Genesis 22. 
Image from http://www.boomerinthepew.com/2009/01/why-would-god-ask-abraham-to-sacrifice-his-son-isaac.html   It's a story that I have heard preached on countless of times (not to mention the number of times I have studied this passage devotionally and academically).

Never has the story troubled me to the degree it has since becoming a father.  Seeing Tiziano's Isaac character innocently bent over, kneeling atop a stack of wood, waiting to be lit as a sacrifice while his father raises a sword above his head - there are few stories that can knock the wind out of a person like this one.  The boy-Isaac's question is heartbreaking: "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Gen. 22:7)  Abraham's answer: "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son" (Gen. 22:8).  But it isn't because of Abraham's faith or trust in God that the angel calls out to stop the sacrifice, but because Abraham feared God (Gen. 22:12).  Because Abraham feared the Lord - a fear that was more powerful than the immense love for his own son - God makes a promise:

 "I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.  And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice" (Gen. 22:17-18) 

I am still not comfortable with this story (and in fact it has hard for me to even think about this picture as a father), but I don't think it's one of those stories that we should strive to "understand," or "imitate," or even remotely feel "good about," other than that, because of Abraham's fear and obedience, God promises to bless the nations.  This story is the story of our ancestors; the beginning moments of God's covenant made complete in Jesus Christ.

We welcome Lydia Ruth Engelhardt into our family and home as a fully loved child of God.  Many faithful saints have practiced seeing Christ in the most rejected and unthinkable persons; we are learning to see Christ in a two week old beautiful baby girl.  And it is because of God's faithfulness to the covenant made with Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ that Lydia Ruth does not have to achieve the love of her father or Father, but is already called a "child of God."  

Jamie and I will continue to pray for Lydia, not because she is ours, but because she is created and loved by God.  Specific things to pray for:

  • That she would gain weight (she was born at 5 lbs 2 ounces, which is fine for a 4.5 week preemie, but we would like to see her gain weight at a steady rhythm)

  • That her lungs and heart would continue to develop (she shows no signs of danger in these areas, but again, because she is a preemie, we are always concerned)

  • That Jamie and I will grow in patience and love as parents

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Welcome to the World - Lydia Ruth Engelhardt

Lydia Ruth Engelhardt was born June 22nd, 2010, at 1:48 PM. She was not expected until July 23rd, 2010.

Last Friday, Jamie's doctor informed her that she was testing with high blood pressure and high protein in her urine. We were directed to go to Sherman Hospital for blood work and a 24-hour urine sample. The urine sample was turned in Monday morning, and Monday afternoon, at around 4:30 PM, we received a call from Jamie's doctor. She informed us that the urine sample came back with abnormally high levels of protein, and that we needed to go to labor and delivery as soon as possible. Neither one of us were fearful at this point, as we were both thinking that we were being directed to the unit in order to have more tests run.

When we arrived at Sherman, the nurses had obviously been expecting us with a little "too zealous" angst; it appeared that the entire nursing staff on third floor new our names already. We were directed to the room, and without explanation, Jamie was instructed to put the infamous hospital gown on and leave her other clothes "until it was time to leave" (still having no idea that this was "it").

We met our first nurse, Jennifer, shortly thereafter, and she informed us that they would probably be inducing tonight…WHAT?! It was exciting at this point. We had known that the high blood pressure and protein in urine were markers of pre-eclampsia or toxemia, and that the cure for this was to give birth to the baby. So for the next three hours we enjoyed the thought of being with our daughter sometime this week.

At 8:00 PM we finally met with the doctor. This is when it became troubling. She informed us that, typically, doctors get nervous about a patients level of protein in urine when it is at 300. Jamie, however, tested at 6,800 (I made no mistake by adding an extra zero). The doctor said that she had a consult with the high-risk doctor on the unit, and neither had seen protein this high before. The next move was to start Jamie on cervidil in order to prepare mommy for giving birth.

Neither one of us slept well during the night.

At 8:30 in the morning, we met with another doctor. She said that there had been no improvements in any of the labs. The cervidil had not worked, and every minute/hour that we waited meant a greater danger to both Jamie and the baby because of the life-threatening possibilities of eclampsia. We were informed that a cesarean section would be necessary, and necessary very soon.

BTW – Jamie, at this point, had been on high doses of Magnesium for nearly 16 hours (Mg is given to ward off the seizures that come with eclampsia), which meant that she was very foggy.

When the doctor informed us that a C-section was needed, Jamie and I instantly knew that there was not much of a question. Sure, if her levels had been questionable, or even if there was "risk" of pre-eclampsia, we would have had to think long and hard about the benefits and risks of the operation (not to mention the disappointment of this pregnancy not being "what we had expected"). However, Jamie's was an exceptional case with record breaking and terrifying markers.

Jamie was wheeled into surgery around 1:25, and Lydia Ruth Engelhardt was born at 1:48 PM. She weighed 5 pounds 2 ounces, was 19.25 in. in length, and more beautiful than we could have imagined. Lydia appears to be doing very well, although she is still in the Special Care Unit, due to being so early. However, her organs appear to be strong, her respiratory response is good, and she shows no infections. Jamie is also doing very well. She will be on Magnesium until 1:30 PM today, and then will hopefully get to see her daughter soon.

There were so many things that could have gone horribly wrong. I wrote a post a few days ago, where I expressed "how few" miracles I have prayed for in my life. We prayed for many miracles in the last 48 hours, and it appears that many of them were answered. She is a beautiful and healthy girl, made strong by her mommy, who gave her the greatest care imaginable for eight months. I am so proud of my wife. I love this little girl. And I am so thankful for all of the blessings over the last 48 hours.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Praying for a Miracle of Adoption

Bean Trellis Bright Light Sky  I have prayed for few miracles in my life.  This may be the result of some rationalist tendencies of my faith ("God just does not operate like that in the world anymore!"), or it may just be due to a pessimistic skepticism that "it just doesn't work."  It may also be due to the fact that, most of the churches and communities of which I have been a part of, fear any discussion of the Holy Spirit because it might lead to "too pentecostal" of a movement.

As I have been reading through the Gospel of Matthew, however, we see Jesus giving authority to his disciples (Matthew 10) to perform miraculous works of healing: healing not only of bodies and spirits, but healings of destructive social systems that forced those who are outcasts, orphaned, widowed, and despised to remain outcasts, orphans, widows, and despised.  Despite my desire to rush past the "moving mountains" passages, they cannot be ignored.

Last night we gathered with a dozen others to pray for some of our close friends who are attempting to adopt a little boy from Ethiopia.  The obstacles to completing the process seem insurmountable.  And now with the rainy season quickly approaching, any hope to complete the process in a short time is the product of faith; not a product of "what is seen."

But we are praying for a miracle.  We are praying, in faith, that these seemingly insurmountable hurdles will be movable mountains.  And we pray this not out of blind hope, or empty desires, but out of the proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord of all the world.  That his cosmic reign is a reign over the small processes of signing documents, and Lord over the comings and goings of government workers.  That his reign is over the nutritional intake of a four month old boy in an impoverished country.  That his reign is over the orphanage workers, to shower love and care on these children.  

So we continue to pray for all those who are orphaned in this world.  For those who are seemingly "without" - without even the basic needs of survival.  We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord over all.  We give thanks that, even though we are separated from this boy by thousands of miles, that God is the present God of mission, pursuing the redemption of all things.  

And we pray, in faith, for a miracle.  That all of the administrative requirements would be filed quickly, and that this little boy would miraculously be showered with love and with good nutrition.  

Lord, in your mercy.  Amen.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Non-profit Panera cafe: Take what you need, pay what you can - USATODAY.com

That's what Panera Bread is trying to find out this week in an outside-the-box experiment in St. Louis. It's a concept that has never been tested by a restaurant chain — and that marks a new career for Ron Shaich, who stepped down as Panera's CEO last week.

via www.usatoday.com

Panera Bread has been one of my favorite restaurants for a long time, and I am very pleased to see that they are attempting something like this!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Inside China factory hit by suicides - CNN.com

STORY HIGHLIGHTS10 people have committed suicide this year at China's Foxconn factoryProducts assembled at factory include iPhones, Dell computers, Sony devicesFoxconn has brought in counselors, launched help line, opened stress roomWages of around $300 a month compare favorably with other factories

via www.cnn.com


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Monuments and Markers of a Graduating Seminary Student

Ebenezer Graduation is only five days away.  Five. 

I vividly remember the exuberant celebration over a phone call that I had received a little over three years ago.  I was at work at my dad's pharmacy, and at around noon, received a call from the admissions counselor at Northern Theological Seminary: I had been selected as one of six who would receive a full ride scholarship for a seminary education.  As I celebrated with my family that night, I remember saying that I considered this award to be the most exciting achievement that I had received up until that point in my life.  

Well, a few other monumental markers have arisen in the wake of that great gift.  First, I became married to my wonderful wife Jamie.  It is not an achievement in the typical sense of "attaining," but in the sense of "committing" and "covenanting" (even if these 'vows' had to be done at a dance later in the night, rather that at the actual service).  Second, Jamie and I received news that we were to become parents.  We are expecting the birth of our daughter in July, and with great joy, anticipate the beautiful moment of welcoming her into this world.  

Over the last three years, there have been an additional number of "monumental markers."  There was the completion of C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education).  It is the monster that every seminary student had feared (I have blogged about it elsewhere).  The "achievement" of chaplaincy was not in completing a requirement, but in beginning a journey of understanding how to care for the hurt, the broken, and the despised.  It was the beginning of being able to ask the question, "Why God?" without having to give a pat answer.  

There was the "paradigm shift" of my faith.  Up until seminary, my faith in Christ was a collection of beliefs about absolutes.  "Authority" on these matters was achieved by proper academic study and logical reasoning.  Through the mentoring and guidance of wonderful friends and faculty, I came to realize that the Christian faith is not about believing the right things, but that, because we do believe certain things, we are re-membered and transformed as people to live as people who hope for the renewal of all things.

Then there is a passion for the church.  Of this passion, I need to ask forgiveness from those who have walked with me over the years, and have heard me complain time and time again about the present state of the church, especially in the western world.  My opinionated rants about the failures of the church have truly come from a passion for Her, even when it did not appear so.  I became elitist and ideological: esteeming a perfect Church that could never exist, while in the mean-time knocking out the bricks of the imperfect.  The "monumental marker" here is not a "discovery of the true/untainted church," but a discovery that, wherever the faithful are gathered for the sake of God's mission in the world, there also is the true Church.  She will always be but a window into the glory of God, but she certainly will be that.

All this to say - echoing cliches and all-too-familiar sentiments - that graduation will not be the completion of my learning, but a beginning.  There have been many life-transforming markers: scholarship, marriage, baby, care, faith, understanding of the Church - just to name a few.  I look forward to encountering more of these altars on the journey, and doing so in the community of believers and unbelievers.  

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Do Not Trivialize the Pains of Death - "Pulling the Plug"

I made a big mistake in my first week of C.P.E.

Clinical Pastoral Education is a requirement for all M. Div. students at Northern Theological Seminary.  We may not require the study of the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages at NTS, but we do require an immersion into patient's hospital rooms, as they are faced with the reality of mortality.  This was the most dreaded part of the M. Div. program as a first and second year student in the program.  Horror stories were told of being asked, "What is the meaning of my life?" by an eighty-five year patient who had abused his wife and children and rejected God his entire life.  It's scary because we are forced to be with people who are asking these types of questions: questions to which we do not know the answers.  The biggest problem with seminary education (and those who desire seminary education), is the perceived expectation that we will leave after three (or seven) years, owning all of the answers to life's most difficult questions.

Three days into the orientation of my Clincial studies, I was seated in the coffee shop with a group of experienced chaplains.  The oncology chaplain was seated to my left.  I was asked, "what am I most afraid of?"  I don't remember verbatim what was said, but I remember answering somewhere along the lines of, "having to tell a family that, because their loved one is brain dead, it is time to pull the plug."  I had just read an article on the medical diagnosis of "brain dead," and was certain that, when this diagnosis was given, the family no longer makes a decision to remove the patient from life support: they are already "gone."  I glanced quickly to the left, noticing the disgust on the oncology chaplains face.  She proceeded to say, "please don't ever use that phrase."  

Needless to say, I felt smaller at that moment than any other time I have imagined.  I was terrified of the largest questions of life.  Sure, these questions were easy to answer when I was in the church office and being asked by a committed believe.  Regina Spektor points to the casual nature of much theological talk:


No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one's laughing at God
When they've lost all they've got
And they don't know what for

No one laughs at God on the day they realize
That the last sight they'll ever see is a pair of hateful eyes
No one's laughing at God when they're saying their goodbyes
But God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or
Or when the crazies say He hates us
And they get so red in the head you think they're ‘bout to choke
God can be funny,
When told he'll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious


But God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or
Or when the crazies say He hates us
And they get so red in the head you think they're ‘bout to choke
God can be funny,
When told he'll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious
Ha ha
Ha ha

These questions were even easy when I was asked by a happy and healthy unbeliever, casually shooting the breeze about the philosophical questions of life.  But to be asked by someone dying, or someone-who's-dying family wanting to know the meaning of life: get outta here.  

Why was this oncology chaplain so insulted by my use of the phrase, "pulled the plug"?  After nearly a year of contemplation on this question, I think it was because I trivialized the life of a human being.  We become so casual with life (at least when it is not ourselves or a loved one), becoming mechanist about the life and death patterns displayed all around us.  Even though we are believers in the eternal resurrection of the body, we start to treat our human bodies as meaningless; merely vessels, needing to be unplugged in order to enter a future life.

While my intention was never to trivialize life and death, I had done just that by using that phrase.  Taking someone off of life support is never as simple as "removing a plug."  It means being willing to enter into a questioning state of life's most difficult questions.  It means being able to stay present to families and persons in the most difficult parts of their existence, and usually not having any answers.  

I don't know why I felt compelled to blog about this tonight, nor why I was unable to blog about it until now.  Even as I think back on many of the memories of sitting in family waiting rooms as they hear the news that their loved one has died brings tears to my eyes.  The transition from this life to the next is difficult.  It is never as easy as simply "pulling a plug."  I pray for the ability to sit calmly and quietly with those who suffer when faced with the reality of death, offering not answers, but friendship and hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, as the One who conquered death and rose to eternal life.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review of and Quotes from Stanley Hauerwas', "Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir"

6a00d8341c0c3a53ef012875e1c74c970c-320pi  I have read very few memoirs in my life.  This is not because I do not enjoy them, but because I have always been pre-occupied with other genres.  I love reading books on theology.  I love reading narrative.  I was never drawn to an intersection of these two.  

However, after a paradigm-shattering summer as a chaplain intern in the emergency department, the strict lines that I had drawn between theology and narrative became blurred.  I began to sense that "theology proper" could not - and should not - be separated from the lives of people and the cultures where God can actually be understood as active and moving.

As a student at Northern Theological Seminary, I have been immersed in the writing and thought of Stanley Hauerwas.  His work crept into my courses in ethics, as well as studies of the church.  He had a profound and influential voice on my understanding of the church.  His voice was prophetic against the staining of the church by capitalism, justice without Christ, and ethics void of formation in community.  His thought has greatly influenced my professors and friends, whose intellectual abilities I greatly respect and admire.  Although I am far from having read his work exhaustively, I consider myself to be an avid learner of his theological and philosophical reasoning.

After completing my final required reading list of graduate school on Sunday, I was ecstatic to pick up his recently published memoir, Hannah's Child: A Theologians Memoir.  I was interested to know how Hauerwas' understanding of God and the world had been shaped throughout his life.

It proved to be a marvelous read.  Hauerwas learned early on that his mother had dedicated him to the Lord's care, just as Hannah had dedicated Samuel.  Similarly, Hauerwas came to realize an additional similarity between his story and Samuels: living in an in-between time.  Samuel's in-between time was in a story of Israel's transition from judges to kings; Hauerwas' has played a "Samuel-like role," challening the religious establishment of the day, "to warn Christians that having a king is not the best idea in the world, at least if you think a king can make you safe" (4).

The memoir is an honest telling of tragedy and joy throughout his life as an academic, as a husband to a mentally ill wife, as a father, and as a preacher.  After finishing the memoir, Hauerwas was asked by friends what he had learned through the process of writing it.  He responds:

I am tempted to say that I have learned how fortunate I am to have had such good friends, but that would be stating the obvious.  I might also reply that I now realize how lucky I have been, but that would be killing time in the hope of discovering something to say.  There are other possibilities.  But in fact what i have learned is quite simple -- I am a Christian.  How interesting. (284)

Many times, when I finish a theology book, I walk away with the feeling that "I have the answers."  Or I will read a story of an unswerving saint who never questions - even to the point of death - and be motivated to go and live a great and impacting life.  After completing Hauerwas' memoir, I do not think I have all of the answers, nor do I think that I need to perfect my life in order to change the world.  I am inspired to be a person of peace and patience, because as a Christian, I can affirm that "through the cross and resurrection we have been given the time to be patient in a world of impatience." (274).  I am challenged to walk daily with my eyes open, identifying in the world instances of God's redemption and work.  I am challenged to love and serve my wife.  

I would highly recommend this book to you all.  Even if you are not aware of his impact on the discipline of theology, you will be blessed by reading an honest story of God working not through the miraculous, but through the everyday things.  I did not have a highlighter with me (as I usually do) when I began reading the memoir.  I thought that I would be reading a story of a person, where taking notes and highlighting sections over others would not be necessary; after fifteen pages, I realized that I would need multiple highlighters.  I wish that I could post all of the quotes that have forced me to stop and ponder, but this blog would be a mile long.  Therefore, below are a few of the quotes which I found to be most insightful.

Speaking about his use of "profanity" in writing and speech:

I suspect my use of profanity was more complex than simply an attempt to stay connected with my working-class roots. I also used the language of the job [bricklaying] in school and church because I discovered that speaking this way upset the pious, and I took delight in that result.  I hated the hypocrisy that niceness cloaks. 28

More quotes

But there is no substitute for learning to be a Christian by being in the presence of significant lives made significant by being Christian. 95

Nonviolence is not a recommendation, an ideal, that Jesus suggested we might try to live up to.  Rather, nonviolence is constitutive of God's refusal to redeem coercively.  The crucifixion is "the politics of Jesus." 118

My claim, so offensive to some, that the first task of the church is to make the world the world, not to make the world more just, is a correlative of this theological metaphysics.  The world simply cannot be narrated - the world cannot have a story - unless a people exist who make the world the world.  That is an eschatological claim that presupposes we know there was a beginning only because we have seen the end.  That something had to start it all is not what Christians mean by creation.  Creation is not "back there," though there is a "back there" character to creation.  Rather, creation names God's continuing action, God's unrelenting desire for us to want to be loved by that love manifest in Christ's life, death, and resurrection. 158

I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say, though that can be a problem, but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world. 159

In response to the question about a tragic life lived:

I am a Christian theologian.  People assume I am supposed to be able to answer that question.  I have no idea how to answer that question.  If anything, what I have learned over the years as a Christian theologian is that none of us should try to answer such questions.  Our humanity demands that we ask them, but if we are wise we should then remain silent. 207

More quotes:

I am not by nature nonviolent.   It is not a nat
ural stance.  But one slow step at a time I tried to learn not to live a life determined by what I was against.  Peace is a deeper reality that violence.  That is an ontological claim with profound moral implications.  But it takes some getting used to. 231


Our call for the abolition of war will take time, but this is not an argument against taking first steps.  As long as it is assumed that war is always an available option, we will not be forced to imagine any alternative to war. 273

Monday, May 24, 2010

Citizens of a New Age

Having finished all of my graduate school reading and nearly all of the writing, I found time over the last two days to become immersed in Stanley Hauerwas' recent memoir, Hannah's Child: A Theologians Memoir.  I will shortly be writing a response to the book, but I was struck by one quote near the end:  

"To be baptized into Christ is to be made a citizen of a new age in this age.  To so live sometimes tempts Christians to try to force God's kingdom into existence through violence.  But that is to betray the time we have been given.  The great paradox is that the apocalyptic character of our faith not only makes the everyday possible but also enables us to see how extraordinary it is.  It is extraordinary, for instance, that we can take the time to welcome children into this world and to enjoy the time called friendship." 246-247

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pentecost Insight - A Seed of Hope


I was warned that seminary might murder my Christian faith.  Two weeks away from graduation, I proclaim that I am still a believer in the resurrected Son of God, Jesus Christ.

However, in the process of the last three years, there has been a murder of sorts.  This is the murder of a belief in communications between persons.  The world of virtual communication has revealed to the masses the difficulties of dialog between persons of different stories.  How many "misunderstandings" of sorts have risen due to an inability to read the "tone" of someone else's intentions over a Facebook message, "Tweet", email, or blog post.  Countless friends have bemoaned this inability to communicate in the virtual world, pleading for a face-to-face communication that is becoming less frequent in our generation.  Few would defend an inherent "simplicity" within the world of virtual communication.

But I have encountered the difficulty of relating to one another as person-to-person over the last three years.  Sure, virtuality provides a second level of difficulty, but the first level itself is nearly impossible.  How is it that we can ever know what the other is really saying?  Even when we think we are speaking the same language, we later find out that we had different expectations, different hopes, and different intentions.  This is not a new observation.  Popular media has emphasized these "communication barriers" for a long time.  The 2006 movie The Breakup (featuring Jennifer Anniston and Vince Vaughn) illustrates this point.  At one point, Anniston's character says to Vaughns: "I want you to want to do the dishes."  Communication between persons is layered with histories, cultural heritage, and desires.

Over the past few years, I have become almost fatalistic about communication.  I have thought that we could never really understand one another, but merely grasp little pieces of the other.

But today we celebrate Pentecost.  Today we proclaim that Christ is Risen; we proclaim that the Holy Spirit is present in the world, through the Church, and through God's people.  Acts 2 describes the day when people gathered together, when suddenly a sound came like a rushing wind, appearing as of fire above each one.  Each began to speak in other languages.  Yet, the question is asked: "How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?" (Acts 2:8).  This day we celebrate our commonality; to each believer in Christ is given the power of the Holy Spirit.

I don't know the full implications of this day in the Church calendar, nor the implications of this insight.  I have mourned the impossibility of communication over the last few years, but today I have a seed of hope.  I have a seed of hope to hear one another, in spite of our vast differences, expectations, and dreams.  I proclaim that we are united together by a common history that makes communication possible: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

I am filled with joy today at the possibility of hearing and understanding those who seem so different (and those who seem so similar) to me.  I pray today for the ability to really listen to those who I judge too quickly, those who I dismiss to arrogantly, and those who I embrace without caring to know who they really are.  

Thank you Lord, for sending the Holy Spirit, to continue empowering and guiding the Church into a vessel for reconciliation for the world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Looking Through History to Understand the Present

I did a quick re-design of the blog this afternoon, specifically because I wanted to add a picture to the header (which didn't really work with the previous design).  That picture was taken while in the Republic of Georgia, and it too (like the bottle of Cognac), has taught me something about theology.

If you look closely at the center, you'll notice that it tunnels back and back, until it hits a wall with some green vines growing on it.  But if you look at the bottom-left of that wall, you'll notice that there is an additional "window" through which you can see the sky beyond the cathedral.  And if you could zoom in further, you would notice that there is a light post in that window.  And if you could continue zooming, you would see in the distance, one of the newest cathedrals in Georgia.  

As a 25 year old, I am part of a generation that naturally questions authority and history.  We read the writings of the "new atheists" - who flaunt the atrocities of religion through history - and we readily see their message applying to the chaos and disorder of our experienced lives.  We react against the written pages of history, and have turned to "our own experience" as the sole arbiter of truth.

But like this picture shows, we are meant to look through the ages of the past in order to "rightly" see the things of the present.  We are not summoned to return to those cultural structures, or "return to the good [or bad] old days," but to look through our history, in order to better understand the present.  

N1470368161_30026993_1978  A good many of the pictures that we took in Georgia were point-blank shots at the modern cathedrals.  These are beautiful images.  The cathedrals are breathtaking.  However, the modern cathedral - with its gold trimmings, magnificent icons, and glorious halls - is nothing more than a performance of the glittering goods of the present age.  This is why it is so much more fruitful to look through the tunnels of the past in order to the see the present; to see that all the glittering things of our lives are passing away.  But this type of perspective also shows that something lasts, and this is particularly the stories that we tell and the lives that have been changed through our faithful witness.

I earlier posted a video by Dr. Jeremy Begbie, in which he talks about the importance of recreation for Christians, rather than creation itself.  We are not called to begin anew in our life in this world, but nor are we called to simply return to an earlier moment.  We are called to look through our historical lens in order to best interpret the present, always with the hope that is Jesus Christ, for the future.  The image at the header of this page visually communicates this paradigm, and I appreciated this nugget of wisdom enough to re-design the blog around it.

Hospitality - The Georgian Way

30599_116366821734850_100000845974212_88483_1817704_n  It feels strange to post a picture of a bottle of Cognac at the top of a blog post.  But the bottle of Cognac pictured on the left is associated with a particularly wonderful story (I realize that many people could post a picture of a liquor bottle and say, "Boy, do I ever have a story for you!").  This story is unique in that it represents the hospitality that I have written about and preached about for years.

In June of 2008, I traveled to the Republic of Georgia for a graduate course in World & Religion Studies.  We were in waters above our heads the entire week.  Our professor was friends with the (Arch)Bishop of the Baptist Church in Georgia, and we were invited as guests to his wedding.  Friends and delegates from all over the world were at this great celebration: Bishop Stephen Platten of Wakefield, BWA General Secretary Dr. Neville Callam, His Excellency the Ambassador of Great Britian, along with many-many more.

Yet, amidst the religiously elite and powerful, we experienced an unheard of hospitality among the poor.  We were welcomed into homes, given beds to sleep on (only to find that the hosts themselves were sleeping on the floors in the hallway), fed the finest foods and wines, which would have  certainly used up a significant portion of their resources.  All of this for a few American students, privileged to know-someone-who-knows-someone-who-knows-someone.  All six of students have had to ask (and are probably still asking), "Why us?"

That, however, is a question for another blog post: this post is a story about Cognac and hospitality.

After traveling west of Tbilisi (capital of Georgia) for a few days, we returned to the capital to prepare for the wedding festivities.  Myself, Paul Rollet, Mike Moore, and Ruthanne Burre, were taken to our guest housing for the remainder of our stay.  We dropped off our bags and personal items and returned to the Bishop's basement for worship.  After a day of activity and meeting new international friends, we returned to the hosts home at roughly 11:00 P.M.  We had attempted to sneak into the home without disturbing our hosts, but were met almost immediately by Goche, who was waiting for us in front of the television.  

Introductory handshakes and greetings were exchanged, which led to Goche's memorable words: "We drink!"  We had prepared to participate in nine toasts of wine at every meal in Georgia, and assumed that Goche was merely adding a few more glasses of evening wine to the docket.  He scurried off into a back room, and a few seconds later emerged with the bottle of Cognac in the picture.  His face displayed such pride in that bottle; a gift that had been given to him from a friend from Armenia 10+ years ago (not the Armenian Cognac you buy at Jewel Osco, but Armenian-Armenian Cognac).  He had been saving this bottle for a special occasion.

A special occasion?  We were his special occasion?  Here we were: four graduate students from a small seminary in the suburbs of Chicago, who by some strange luck were allowed to celebrate in the wedding festivities of the Archbishop.  But that's what was important to Goche: we were his guests.  He had been asked by the leaders of the Baptist Church in Georgia if he would be willing to host some international guests for a few days.  Archbishop Malkhaz had been his childhood friend, and he had been asked by this friend to host.  

What if we all viewed our guests with such open arms and care?  What about our enemies and strangers?  We felt as if we were the most important people in the world around Goche.  We had value.  We were cared for.  Isn't this hospitality?  Welcoming everyone - friend, foe, and stranger - into our homes and lives puts on display the loving character of God, who welcomes all with open arms and open hands.  In a society where people are valued almost solely for their social status, material possessions, and marketable skills, the call to be hospitable to "the least of these" strikes with a passionate force. 

Goche was asked by his friend - the Archbishop of Georgia - to host a few guests for a few days.  We all have been asked by God - the lover of all people - to become hosts and lights for all the world.  

The bottle of Cognac has come to represent the valuing of people in my life.  It has caused be to pause and see the worth in each person.  At some point, we are to retreat into the back room and retrieve our valuables to be shared with the guest.  For Goche, this was a bottle of Cognac: for those who have put their faith in Christ, it may be reconciliation, or it might just be a human hand of peace.

Goche and his wife 


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Grandma's Quilt


My mom has an incredible gift of crafting and caring.  She made the quilt above as a gift for our little girl, and every time we pull it out we are amazed at the beauty of it.  We can imagine laying it on the floor and allowing our daughter to wonder at the colors, patterns, and fabric choices: it will be a world of exploration for a newborn.

Mom, I am so thankful for you this weekend.  You have taught us how to care for one another and think of others first.  We love you so much.  


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Grandpa Gumm and A Few Funny Pictures (not of grandpa)



My grandfather passed away one year ago today (pictured above,not below).  He was a wonderful man, who loved God and loved his family.  The anniversary of a loved one who has died is cause for both celebration and mourning; our family has expressed both of these emotions throughout the day via email conversations and Facebook updates.  

I would like to add a little humor.  I received the following pictures in an e-mail today, and they added some laughter to the day.  Enjoy!


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Does Anyone Have the Gift of Evangelism Anymore?

Bullhorn-evangelism1  Few people in my generation want to claim the spiritual gifting of evangelism.  There is a general skepticism about this aspect of the Christian life, and much of Evangelicalism as a whole has framed - very poorly - their theological reasons for proclamation.  In my own experience, the launchpad for evangelism was framed in one of the following ways:

  1. Jesus Christ commanded us to do it, therefore we do it.  Jesus' final words recorded in the gospel of Matthew: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  At the heart of evangelical theology is the belief that we are free from the law; we are saved by grace through faith.  I am very curious why the most readily adopted motive for partaking in evangelism is because Jesus has "commanded us to do so," when, in every other situation, we stake and proclaim our utter "freedom" from the law.  

  2. If we don't convert them, then they will burn in eternal hell.  The motive for evangelism within this framework is that, unless we share the gospel with the unsaved, they will forever be tormented.  The evangelist therefore operates under a fear for lost souls.  Besides the issue that I take up with this understanding of hell, attempting to win converts by selling or giving away a "get outta jail free card" is largely unsupported in the Biblical text.  Earlier this month, Dan Kimball wrote an article about the Christian doctrine of hell, where he states that "Too often, I think we’ve subtly made hell the primary motivation for salvation and the Gospel, altering or losing the beauty of the holistic Gospel (I Cor. 15). The Gospel is not just about what happens when we die, but about our lives being changed here."

I suggest that both of these beliefs, as impetuses for evangelism, have fallen drastically short of a fully evangelical and fully biblical understanding of proclamation of the good news.  John Stott suggests that our first and foremost motive for sharing the good news of the victory is a "burning zeal (even 'jealousy') for the glory of Jesus Christ."1  This is where I have especially appreciated the theology of the Missional Church, and how we are then to live as witnesses to the glory and the victory of Christ.

Evangelism then is neither something we do out of obedience to a command, nor is something that we do in order to save others: instead, because of the reality of the lordship of Christ that has been won, we are transformed into people and communities who naturally embody this reality to the world!

This type of evangelism, where we live our lives passionately and authentically, is what my generation longs for.  We distrust institutions, but we trust localized communities.  We see power and manipulation behind nearly everyone and everything, and therefore we need lasting relationships of shared experience in which trust has been built over time.  The pluralistic society we live in is not opposed to the Christian faith, and nor is it even opposed to sharing that uniquely Christian faith with others.  What it is opposed to is the objective pronouncement of eternal judgment (heaven or hell) apart from relationship.  It is opposed to the hypocrisy within stating, "There is new life in Christ," and having no corresponding impact on one's life and actions in the here and now.

Evangelism is not the big scary word that I once thought it was.  The politically liberal agenda of a society in which each individual is allowed a private faith,but a faith that must remain behind the "veil" of public influence and dialog, creates a dualistic split that is foreign to the holistic new creation that Christians proclaim.  Evangelism is not the private action of the few in forcefully talking about abstract truths, but is the everyday public embodiment of new life, new community, and new hope found in Jesus Christ.  


1John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 329.