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.