Thursday, September 12, 2013

The voices in my head

We hear voices all the time. Voices from our family and friends. Voices from the media. Voices from figures of authority--church, government, school, etc. But then there are the voices in our heads. These are the voices telling us that we are worthless. That we are terrible Christians. That our lives will be merely a wearisome slog.

Artist: Donna Mulholland
These are the voices in my head. "You're ugly. You're a bad physicist. You need to work harder at being a better person. Your future looks bleak, but that's what you deserve anyway." These are the voices that subtly (and sometimes less subtly) influence how I live and act. These are the voices which have enslaved me.

Where are the other voices? Why is grace's voice so quiet in the milieu of other voices? Why doesn't she speak louder? Why can't I hear the ones saying, "The King is enthralled by your beauty. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. I have given you gifts and a place in my body--the church. I have started a good work in you and will carry it to completion. You deserve death, but I have given you life and life abundantly. I have plans for you--plans to prosper you and give you a hope and a future." Why is it so hard to hear this message among all the others?

As I listened to these strident voices of failure and bitterness, I found that I was dying. I did not believe in my worth and I could not look my God in the eye. I hung my head and cowered in the corner of His temple. I told Him that He had created filth. I hid behind the bushes and told Him that I could not come out for I was naked.

I want to slough off these voices. I want to silence them. I want to listen to the quiet voice telling me that He died to save me. I want to listen to the voice that tells me I am free. I want to listen to the voice that tells me I have purpose. As someone who is part of my story, help me. Please help amplify the quiet voice of love. Help me hear the strains of grace through the cacophony of critical voices.

I have listened to this sermon from Galatians 5:1,13 several times and each time I am struck by how I have fallen back into slavery, listening to the voices that would keep me in bondage. I don't want this. It is for freedom that Christ set me free!

Pastor Chuck McCullough, White Rock Baptist Church, Oct 2012

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Friends with a deity?

Jesus talking with his friend Mary
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!

I have a problem with this hymn. You see, I don’t understand what it means to be a friend of Jesus.

Most of my friends haven’t saved humanity. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any other friends who are also Creator of the universe, so I have no frame of reference for this friendship. I have a poor understanding of what a friendship with God is supposed to look like.

How does one relate to God and how in the world does He relate to us? Hebrews gives us a small glimpse of how the latter happens. We are told that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). I have read this verse many times and I still don’t understand that Jesus actually sympathizes with my weakness. He lived a very human life. I am not intellectually denying this. I am emotionally denying it. I want to question that He understands my loneliness, fatigue, and feelings of hopelessness.

Francisco de Zurbaran
In general, I would view a relationship in which one party is bearing all the sins and griefs of the other as a highly unhealthy one. But somehow this is exactly what makes my relationship with God a friendship! If we can trust John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, Jesus showed us his love by laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13). It was this very sacrifice which made it clear that Jesus views us as friends. Somehow the lopsidedness in this relationship makes it possible.

Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?

But what about the other direction? If Jesus is my friend, that means I’m His friend! What could I possibly offer in friendship? We have an idea from James that this probably includes belief and that being credited as righteousness because right after we're told that Abraham's faith was credited as righteousness, we are also informed that Abraham was called a friend of God. God wants His friends to believe in Him. Well, that makes sense, I guess. But all through 1 John, we are also told that love means obedience. If I love God, I will obey Him. Here is where things don't look quite like my human friendships. I view obedience as a master/servant relationship, not a friend relationship, but somehow it's part of both?

Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he'll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.

I am not often despised and forsaken by my friends, but occasionally they are not there for me. It’s not usually their fault; it’s just a fact of life. There are times I feel alone. Yet, I know that God will never leave me, so He's clearly the ultimate friend and yet emotionally, I don't get it. God doesn't give me hugs or send me a glance across the room that lets me know He thinks I'm special. I don't know how to have "normal" conversations with an omniscient God. Perhaps I am looking at externals too much. What is friendship, but knowing each other deeply and loving what we find. Clearly God doesn't have problems with knowing and loving. But how about me? Are my problems with claiming friendship with God a result of my not knowing or not loving enough? Quite possibly.

The one verse that convinces me that this hymn is not crazy in ascribing a friendship label to my relationship with Jesus is John 15:15. These words pierce my heart: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Just typing these words (yes, they’re typed, not copy-pasted) made my heart hurt. I am the friend of Jesus. He does not call me servant, but friend! Whether or not I understand what friendship with a deity means, the fact is I'm friends with the God of the universe (or is it multiverse?)!

Friday, July 19, 2013

It's All in the Mind (...and in the legs and lungs)

Green is the colour of my true love’s curves… Er… What I mean to say is that I have been embracing the slopes of the Los Alamos ski hill. Literally. Well, almost literally. It looks something like this:
Pajarito Mountain Ski Area. Those slopes are deceptive.
Don't be fooled into thinking it's an easy climb!
I get out of my car, cinch on my waist pack, and grab my poles. Both waist pack and poles serve to make me feel more legit than I would otherwise. I set out at a steady clip and approach the first green slope. I pause, look up at the green expanse, and say, “That’s not TOO steep. We’re feeling pretty good today. Let’s go.” The plural subject is not because I am hiking with anyone, but because it feels much more like an epic adventure when there is a full party conquering the mountain. And about one third of the way up, there are multiple voices anyway:
“Just keep swimming walking.”
“Emergency Alert! There is pain, fatigue, and thirst! Abort Mission. Abort Mission.”
“Look. Just get to the little green bush there. You can do it. A few more steps. Then, you can take a break.”
“Made it! Took a few more [gasp] steps. Water break!”
“What are you doing?!?!?! No breaks! That was barely three steps. Up and at ‘em. Hehehe. I tricked you. You thought you were going to get a break. I’ll give you one when you get to that tree up there. No, not the one in five paces, the one up on that ridge.”
“But I can’t make it THAT far!!”
"I repeat. Abort Mission."
And somewhere along the way, I tell Nazi Exercise Voice to shut up and I fold over at the waist, lean on my poles, and gasp for air. It’s a very attractive sight.  They really ought to put me on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Just the other day, I was walking up Wildcat. I thought it was Daisy Mae. I would have preferred Daisy May. Somewhere about a quarter of the way up, I was huffing and puffing to put the big bad wolf to shame and I realized, “This slope isn’t easy!” I was very indignant. And to make matters worse, there was a deer complacently watching me for a good ten minutes as I stumbled my way up the slope. He seemed amused by my slow progress. I, needless to say, was not amused. It was only when I got to the top that I saw the slope was a black diamond (translation: much steeper than a nice and gentle bunny hill). Dear reader, there is a price to confusing a blue diamond (Daisy Mae) with a black diamond (Wildcat): you leave your dignity trailing behind you on the slopes.
I decided to take the jeep trail down. No, it wasn’t that I was a chicken. Well, maybe partially. It had gotten dark by then and the moon wasn’t quite bright enough for me to see my feet, so I figured I would be less likely to roll my ankle and die if I took the jeep trail rather than careening down one of the slopes (That's the way of things, you know. First you roll your ankle, then you lie there in pain, and then you die). As I was walking down the jeep trail in the dark, I realized that the pain wasn’t over. You use different muscles for descending than ascending. My quads were complaining about the volleyball I had played earlier in the week. I told them I had enough of complaining. They continued to grumble.
There is no winning...until you have showered, changed into warm, comfy clothes, and curled up in bed to celebrate another physical feat of exercise. Then, and only then, can we recall the green slopes of Apen or Wildcat or Daisy Mae with fondness.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Love Child of Java and the BCP

What would happen if the Book of Common Prayer collided with some rudimentary Java programming?

A mashup of audio and text, I am finding this interactive form of the Book of Common Prayer highly useful. 
Of course, the program doesn't yet *look* pretty, but it's mostly functional. I still have to add the correct readings from the lectionary (which will require some serious database manipulation), but it's at the "useful" stage, which means I can use it for my personal prayers!

Some worship God through art. Others worship Him through writing. I worship Him by programming.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Reading a Stranger's Diary

The internet is a strange place. Some places are stranger than others, but in the last week I have been on a journey with a woman whom I know nothing about. Jennifer Harris Dault's baby died in her womb and Jennifer chronicles the pain, emotion, and grief of the miscarriage. As of today, her story is not over because her body has yet to expel the baby and where most people bury the pain of miscarriage deep within, Jennifer has chosen to share it and I have entered her word cautiously. Cautiously, because I was unprepared for the flood of emotion. Cautiously, because I have no similar experience with which I can relate. Cautiously, because this is a sacred place--a place of faith and loss and motherhood--and I am not sure what to do in this space.

You might argue this is no different than reading a book and entering that world, but I would argue there is a fundamental difference. This woman's story is unfolding in real time and I am entering her world as it unfolds. This is not the same as reading Anne Frank's diary because when reading her diary I am aware that those events have already happened. In this story, I enter Jennifer's pain as she is living it. I can pray for her because her story is ongoing. I am a part of her world in the present. She is my sister in Christ and we meet at the Father's throne. She doesn't know me and I don't know her, apart from a series of blog posts, but it doesn't matter because for this week at least, I have heard her voice and listened to what she has said and my heart breaks with her for baby Avelyn Grace.

Jennifer's eloquence and raw description of the darkness have moved me indescribably. Reading this woman's diary has been a rare privilege afforded by the internet and I am humbled and dare I say changed by it.

Our prayers are with you, Jennifer Harris Dault.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lessons from a Harmonium

The gentleman who let me borrow a harmonium.
The sacred musical instrument of India has taught me several lessons and I've only had it for two and a half days. Yes, you heard that right. This instrument is teaching me.

The first lesson might be considered a bit of a stretch because it concerns the circumstances of acquiring the harmonium, but just roll with it! My housemate is Sikh and I was curious as to how the Sikh worship, so I asked to go with her to the gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) one Friday. There I heard a harmonium being played for the second time in my life and I fell in love all over again (the first time I heard it was at a Houghton Chapel service when the mystical group Mandala played). I determined right then and there as I watched the kids play during the service that I wanted to learn! I talked with my housemate and she said I could ask the leader. So, a few weeks later, I went to the gurdwara again and before helping the women in the kitchen with the cooking, we asked about the harmonium.

And he said we could borrow one of the harmoniums to take home and practice on for a week! So, I came back on Sunday and did just that. Now, I have to wonder. If some strange person came into your church and asked if he/she could learn to play guitar, would you lend them one? "If someone takes your coat, do not withold your shirt from them." I do believe that this particular group of Sikhs have shown me what this looks like!

The second lesson I learned was that a 10 year absence from reading music is painfully felt! I only remembered my notes between middle C and G. Everything else required me to count up or down from those! And forget about remembering any keys other than C Major!

A gorgeous harmonium with lots of stops!
My loaner one is not nearly as handsome.
The third lesson is closely correlated. If one wants something badly enough, one will work at it! I never enjoyed piano lessons and hated practicing, but I have been practicing for an hour each day since getting the harmonium... and I printed up scales to practice. Yes, I am voluntarily subjecting myself to practicing scales!

The fourth lesson was one I was hoping I wouldn't have to learn. I am still incapable of doing two different things with my hands. The pumping hand wants to pump with the same rhythm as the notes, rather than providing a steady stream of air to the inner bellows... I will be working on that!

The last lesson I have learned is that even while learning to play an instrument, it is possible to lose yourself in the music. I am currently learning to play five taize songs and after the first few times through, I am able to sink into the music and pray the words as I sing them. Mandala combined Gregorian chants with the harmonium, and I am combining Taize music with it. Either way, the instrument is truly well-suited for devotional music and I am so excited to continue learning it and learning from it!

Friday, May 17, 2013

That Dang Mammon (Part 2)

[And he speaks again]

So, I was thinking about “mammon”.  A weird word . . . not a typical occupant of our everyday vocabulary; but such a great word . . . foreign, exotic, mysterious.

“Mammon” is Aramaic in origin (actually, it has an uncertain Semitic root, meaning “wealth, property or profit”.)  We know it only in the New Testament, in the words of Jesus. Obviously His hearers knew it well enough because He did not have to explain it to them.

To us, however, the term sounds a mysterious, even sinister, note—I mean, remember when your mother would inveigh against “the evils of mammon”. (No? Well, maybe she should have.)

Anyway, the very fact that this word is remote and impersonal renders it safe and non-threatening; i.e., the absence of familiarity allows us to treat it as something to which we need give little attention.

The fact of the matter is, however, the business of “mammon” happens to be pretty serious stuff. Jesus drew a very stark line: “Either God or mammon. One or the other. You can’t serve both.” In this text, Mt. 6:24, money is personified as an object of worship.  “Wealth in itself is not bad—but if you serve it as a slave serves his master, then your professed loyalty to God is a sham and you are fooling only yourself.”

Jesus used “mammon” in the cryptic story of the dishonest manager. Now, this guy was not held up as an icon of virtue, but he did reveal that he was teachable. He took quick action with the mammon at his disposal to cut some deals and prepare for the crisis that lay ahead of him.

You see, the sneaky, conniving steward eventually realized that he was going to have to face his Master. In the end, what he did with the money (which, admittedly, was less than stellar) showed that he understood the power and authority of the Master and the scary fact that a personal accounting would be required of him. The Master was impressed that the steward wised up and took care of business before it was too late (Lk. 16:1-8).

In the first part of this three-part series, we explored briefly the relationship between our central theological touchstone, the resurrection of Jesus, and the practice of “taking up an offering” (Paul made the connection first!)

In this second part, we want to press a little further into the utterly radical nature of Jesus’ view of money. His teachings on the subject are hard precisely because they run against everything we have been taught about growing wealth, being successful, preparing for the future, etc.  

Indeed, Jesus’ portentous take on “mammon” grabs us by the nape of the neck and gives us a good shake. He was not kidding around. Though He did not apparently advocate vows of poverty for everyone, He did promote eternal Kingdom values that simply don’t allow much room for building earthly empires.

(Parenthetical interjection: This discussion is not really about spending and saving and debt and credit and insurance and preparing for retirement and all that. I gladly leave this financial stuff to Dave Ramsey . . . who does a very good job with these important issues.

This is also not about whether Jesus was for or against capitalism or socialism. In spite of the claims of some, His ministry was not about setting up any sort of economic system.)

Jesus hit the money issue hard. He knew full well how easily it takes His place in our hearts. He knew how easily swayed we can be by the allure of wealth and all it promises. He knew that the condition of our heart and the status of our faith are revealed in the way we handle money.

He knew the lies that human society perpetuates; i.e., namely, that money brings power, promises security, and buys prestige—chimerical temptresses that lead to destruction.

The quintessential countercultural radical, Jesus simply did not share the priorities of the world He came to save (imagine that.) He came to seek and to save the lost, not save for a rainy day. He came to make disciples, not make wealth. He came to establish a Kingdom beyond this world, not build an empire.

Here are a few more crazy things He said . . . .
“Money won’t buy you everlasting comfort . . .” The “I Got Mine and I’m Good” outlook just doesn’t work very well (Lk. 16:19-26).

“A great retirement plan will not get you into heaven . . .” Actuarial tables do not account for eternity. The “Bigger Barn Retirement Plan” won’t get you there (Lk. 12:16-21).

“Invest your treasure in things that last . . .” Saving and spending wisely are good practices, but at some point you’ve got to put your money where your faith is (Mt. 6:19-21).

“Manage your money wisely—then God will know He can trust you really valuable things . . .” (Lk. 16:9-13).

“Stop worrying so much. Do you really think it all depends on you?” Really, where is your faith?   (Mt. 6:25-34)

“Trying to be good is ok, but it is pointless if you’ve made your stuff your god.” (Lk. 18:18-25)

“I want your offerings, but I want more than that.  I want everything you’ve got.” I want you, and your heart, soul, mind, and strength. I want your trust, your commitment, your loyalty, and your love . . . everything (Lk. 21:1-4).

“There is one thing that is more valuable than anything you can imagine” (Mt. 13:31-32; 44-46). Not one of us will find greater worth in God’s eyes because we had a lot of money or cool gadgets or the admiration of others. He will know His people by the fact that they seek His Kingdom above everything else.

But, of course, all of this is so strange, foreign, exotic, and unreasonable. Could it be that Jesus simply did not understand the economic exigencies of we face today?

What do you think? Was He simply out of tune with the realities of our world? I mean, He was on earth only a few years. He did not have a family, career, debts, and other responsibilities . . . and He lived a long time ago. Don’t you suppose He would change His advice if He were here now?

It comes down to a simple choice: either we take seriously what He said and figure out how to apply His teachings to our lives . . . or we carefully excise those parts of the Bible and dismiss them as archaic and irrelevant.

My sense is that He is hoping that we will wise up before it is too late.

Drawn by the ideals of the Savior—yet still a struggling captive of a broken world, I am, as always,


Monday, May 6, 2013

High Church, Low Church

This last Sunday I experienced the extremes of the high/low church spectrum. I went to an Episcopal church and a Quaker meeting. It was an enlightening experience on both counts, but one that left me saddened.

The service I went to at St. Luke's was small. Very small. We sat in this beautiful sanctuary and while the liturgy was reverent and I felt peace, I also felt like I was participating in the end of something. An era of stained glass windows and white-robed ministering servants seemed to be fading away. There were maybe 30 people in the congregation, most white-haired and in the waning years of their own lives.

Unlike the later service I had attended at St. Luke's the previous week, this service followed Rite I in the Book of Common Prayer and had no majestic organ, chanting, or singing. The readings were solemn, the homily short, and mood less joyful. Of course, I love how communion is done in high churches. We knelt before the altar, shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters. Humbly, we accepted the bread with two hands and ate. We were served the wine from a communal cup and in submission we drank from the hands of the ministering servant. In this particular expression of communion, there exists so much meaningful symbolism of humility, submission, servanthood, unity, and...communion! If I could take only one thing from the high church, I would probably take the method of communion. But for the rest, somehow this great, high church with its soaring arches is crumbling beneath the relentless onslaught of the entertainment mindset of [post]modernity.

After St. Luke's, I went to the Quaker Meeting House. From the extreme high church to the extreme low church, this was an entirely new experience for me. I had been invited to come to Meeting after attending a Peace benefit meal earlier in the week.

Excuse this digression, but the peace benefit reminded me that although I am pacifist, I do not have the same "fuzzy feelings" about pacifism that so many present seemed to have. This is not the community in which I fit. I care about peace and nonviolence, but I do not see my role in this process as picketing, signing petitions, or talking down aggressors. There is a place for those, but I do not see myself as joining in this way. But back to the Quakers.

Before the beginning of the "service," there was a time of instruction. This particular one was about "clearness committees," a Quaker concept from the 1660s used for personal discernment. Perhaps I will write another post on this, but for now my observation was merely that I find it interesting that although there are no homilies (no shepherd implies no homily!), the Quakers have gotten around this by having these talks beforehand.

I noticed another thing. Quakers do not have a creed and are against such statements of belief and yet similar to the distinction between the American and the Canadian constitutions, it seems that the Quakers have merely a collection of documents and ideas which do form a somewhat informal creed. Pamphlets on clearness committees, books on community, posters on the "rules" of living a Quaker life. It seems it is still not possible to have a body of people join together without some consensus on purpose, beliefs, and rules.

The meeting itself was characterized by silence. At times, someone would stand up with some insight to share. Most often it was an observation on what had happened during the week. Other times, it was a reflection on something that struck them. This is where I realized that Quakers are not all Christocentric. No Scripture was shared, but a story from Gandhi's life was and the thoughts of a "universalist" Quaker author. Although we were all sitting together, it was such a lonely experience. The silence was not a communal silence, but an individual silence. The words shared seemed like merely words ringing into the silence. I wondered if people were even listening to each other.

Had I not had a wealth of my Protestant experiences to draw on, I'm not sure how I would have made it through an hour of almost entirely unbroken silence and certainly not week after week. I spent this time praying, singing songs (in my head), and quoting Scripture (again, silently), but without the reservoir of songs, Scripture, and an active relationship with God to draw on, it would have been a very empty time for me.

My experience after the meeting was very good though. Ironically, of all the churches I have visited, this one was the only one to really get it "right." I was invited to join them for a potluck and one of the women took me under her wing and talked with me at length. We discussed the history of the Quakers and the various branches (there are some more Christocentric branches), the beauty of liturgical services, and various other topics. It was most enjoyable and if this had been a Christocentric church, this would have been enough to make this place my home, but... alas, I am still left to continue my quest for a spiritual home in Kalamazoo.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Intellectual Virtues Attack a Culture of Anti-intellectualism

Philip Dow's book, "Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development" is an excellent complement to J. P. Moreland's "Love Your God with All Your Mind." Where Moreland's is a book directed to the philosopher or the philosophically minded, Dow's book is the everyman's introduction to the intellectual virtues. Filled with amusing anecdotes and solid historical examples, Dow brings the potentially dense philosophical ideas to the masses, and the educator in particular.

But let me not carry on in this formal vein. Basically, Mr. Dow, as I better know him, was one of my high school teachers. I admired him from afar and when I got to have him as my U.S. history teacher, I drank in what he had to say. My views of U.S. history are still highly influenced by what he taught me (specifically the role of Protestantism in the nation's development!), but even more than that it was his ideas regarding intellectual virtues that stuck with me.

I entered my undergraduate days at Houghton College with an understanding that intellectual curiosity was not merely the characteristic of a freakish nerd (although, that description might be apt... after all, who's writing a review of a book on intellectual virtues for the fun of it?), but was a desirable trait and indeed one that ought to be honed further. Before Shirley Mullen, our beloved college president (and I'm serious when I say that she's well-loved!), told us to become lifelong learners, I had already heard and absorbed this message from Mr. Dow.

I focus on intellectual curiosity because this is what really stuck with me, but I recall very clearly the emphasis on intellectual honesty and carefulness because these were spoken of at length while we worked on our senior research projects. In "Virtuous Minds", Mr. Dow expanded on my understanding of these concepts with a connection between intellectual carefulness and glibly accepting gossip and pointing out that one's thinking habits can positively influence one's experience of life, not just the outcomes of particular scenarios.

Unfortunately, I still felt like there was something lacking with the book. There were only passing references to Postman, Moreland, and a few other thinkers whom I think have a lot of really good things to say on the topic of current anti-intellectualism and I would have liked to have seen a more in depth treatment of this topic.  I understand that this was not the primary purpose of the book, but any book that seeks to promote the intellectual virtues should at least somewhat address some of the theories regarding its lack in contemporary culture. The book fairly dripped with the ideas of Chesterton and Lewis (much to my delight) and I would have liked to have seen some of the ideas of these other authors more incorporated.

I began by comparing "Virtuous Minds" with Moreland's "Love Your God..." I read Moreland's book a few months ago and it blew my mind. It was everything I needed to hear. I devoured that book! You see, in the intervening years between college and now I felt like I had lost the intellectual community which had surrounded me since... well, since kindergarten! I suddenly felt adrift in a sea of anti-intellectualism. Moreland encouraged me not to give up on my individual intellectual pursuits of lifelong learning, but it was Mr. Dow's book that encouraged me not to give up on the general state of intellectual virtues in society.

What Mr. Dow's book did more than anything else though was to point out how the pursuit of the intellectual virtues results in loving God and loving my neighbour. Ironically, "Virtuous Minds" was more effective in showing me how these virtues result in loving God than Moreland's "Love Your God with All Your Mind"! "Virtuous Minds" showed me the connection between being fair-minded and being a good listener (and the value of that). It reminded me that how we treat other people's ideas is as important as how we treat other people, since their ideas are part of who they are. And the conclusion that the purpose is to become intellectually virtuous rather than merely doing intellectually virtuous things was very apropos.

So, whether you need a kick in the pants to jumpstart your pursuit of knowledge or a reminder on the importance of the intellectual virtues, I highly recommend both "Love Your God..." and "Virtuous Minds".

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Power of a Letter [A Confession]

None of my letters will ever reach a value of $3.4 million like this one signed by Abraham Lincoln (see photograph at right), but I do think they have value! I am one of these old fashioned people who likes to write on paper and send them with stamps and when I'm feeling particularly ebullient the letters come graced with stickers and random clippings!

Unless you receive letters from me, you probably don't much care about my idiosyncratic love of letter-writing, but there is another reason I bring this up. You are the recipient of one of the greatest letters of all time. If you are like me (NB: I do not assume that this is the case), You have heard this ad nauseum and are unimpressed by the fact that God wrote you a love letter. *yawn.

Wait! What?! Did I just yawn at the fact that the Almighty God, Creator of the universe, deigned to speak to His creation? How did I come to a place of such complacency and apathy? I open the Bible, flip a few pages, and say, "Yeah, yeah... I know. I've read this before." Where did this attitude come from?! How did I grow weary of a hearing truth repeated over and over? Its repetition does not make it any less true. Where did this arrogance come from?

I would like to answer the questions of the origins of my arrogant apathy, but more pertinent is the question of how to fix this! The power of this letter is ineffective if the letter is not read! The problem is not just my indifference, but the fatigue that has accrued in studying the Bible. Here are a few of the ways I have been trying to read it in a different way, but I am very much open to suggestions!

1) Listening to audio versions, rather than reading. 
Pro: I hear different emphases than I might be inclined to see if I read it to myself. I can't get hung up on a verse, but get more of the broader story.
Con: Sometimes the voices [I'm talking to you, Max McLean] are rather soothing and I find myself drifting...

2) Recording my own audio version.
Pro: I have to figure out the general flow of the passage to effectively record it. I have a much broader view of the context of individual verses. I discover different ideas while getting caught up in the tenor of a piece. I don't drift off, since I'm speaking it out loud. It is in this process that I find myself coming the closest to loving my time spent reading Scriptures.
Con: I have to find a quiet space where I can speak out loud without bothering anyone. I can get distracted by the technical quality of the recording rather than the words I am recording.

3) Reading without notes, pens, or highlighters.
Pro: I do not feel the pressure to "discover something new." I can relax into the narrative or ideas being presented.
Con: Often I find myself not remembering what I just read and the underlying structure of the passage is not as obvious to me.

So, this is where I am. My goal in this venture is well-stated by a friend of mine: "read [the Bible] as a means of pleasure and spending time with God as opposed to figuring out what God commands about such and such" [emphasis mine]. Faith is indeed a journey and we run the race with perseverance, even when it seems like the stitch in your side is killing you or at the very least making you slow to a crawl.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cultural Revolution

We frequently speak of Christianity as a countercultural religion, but in a recent conversation with a friend, I was corrected on my terminology. The position I hold is not that Christianity is countercultural, but that it transcends culture. Islam, Hinduism, and other religions create cultures. If you follow the rules and dictates of these religions, you have developed another culture and you live in that. Christianity does not create a culture, which is why it is revolutionary wherever it is preached.

There is no creating a "Christian culture" because as soon as you think you've got it, you realize that more is asked! We can never get comfortable and say this is what Christianity looks like in practice. Let's look at the practice of giving. We can start with our comfortable 10% tithe inspired by Old Testament commandments. But then, we look at the New Testament and see that the widow gave ALL she had. So, we decide to give everything. But when we look at Jesus' teachings, we read about the parable of the talents and realize that the responsibility of the servants was to use what was given to them and increase it for the master. And then, to complicate matters further, we see that giving isn't just monetary. We see examples of women giving up their children (Hannah with Samuel). And we read that the earth is the Lord's and everything in it. The world and all who live in it, so we wonder what giving really means when it's already His. So, you see that there's no clear cut: "this is how you should give," apart from cheerfully and not ostentatiously. The only thing you can say is "give."
As a result, you will have some people giving 10%. Some 60%. Some taking vows of poverty. Some creating foundations to support causes. Some only accepting money given to them in their service for God. What's the true Christian response? Yes.

Domenico Fetti. "Peter's Vision."
I think Shane Claiborne's radical way of living is a good response to what we read in the Bible. But I
also think that this is not the only way to live the teachings we find. Can you create a culture when there are so many options that are right? We often think there are many ways to go wrong and only one right path. That's true. But the right path looks different for different people. God has called us to different paths. God is calling all of us to give. Should I be buying cans of food for a soup kitchen instead of supporting my Compassion child? I don't think so. Should Jane Smith be buying cans of food instead of supporting a child through Compassion? Quite possibly. A friend asked me recently how much we should give. I told him that it's between you and God and my rule of thumb is "give until it hurts." Then, when you grow comfortable with giving that much, give a little bit more. We live by faith after all. And on this topic, giving is giving of our whole selves. Not just money. Our time, our connections, our enthusiasm, our homes, our cars, our expertise, our energy. All of these can be given or used in service to give. So, even if you give up all material possessions, you haven't given it all yet: you still have yourself! Keep giving!

So, you can see that there are no "rules" we can write down to truly live the Christian life, but cultures are defined by rules. What is appropriate. What is taboo. What is expected. These rules are turned on their heads because God calls us to more. You have heard it said do not murder, I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister is subject to judgment. This is a rule turned on its head. When each rule is actually a principle, it's no longer black and white. It no longer has the capability of clearly defining. Perhaps it is okay to fight in this war because God commands it, but not this other war. Or perhaps he can fight in this war, but I can't. Perhaps it is both pacifism and aggressive justice? Where is the sense in this? This is not cultural. Cultures cannot exist in this tension.

But where does this revolution start? It starts with the heart. There is no magical Jabez-type prayer that will rocket your life into perfection. There is only a slow, slogging painful journey. But take heart because we're all in this together! This revolution won't be flashy. It's not sexy and it won't make you lose that extra weight you're carrying. It starts with the heart.

When I think about the cultural and religious revolutions of the 17th century, I think they came about because those Anabaptists (and others) were looking for change when they approached the Scriptures. They came to radical conclusions because they were dissatisfied with the status quo. They weren't happy with what the church looked like. Sound familiar? That's how revolutions are started. So, you want a thought revolution? Well, it begins with the attitude of you, dear reader. Unless you are looking for change, I cannot convince you that you need to change. Unless you are truly unhappy with what you are getting from the church, you will not have the motivation to change the church. Unless you desire to live a new life, reading the Bible will not change you. Did I just say that? I did. Unless your heart is right with God, you will not read the Bible clearly. You will justify what you read. You will read the words and not the spirit. Change starts with the heart.

Caravaggio. "The Conversion on the Way to Damascus"
Provided the heart is in the right place, I think we just start reading the Bible! There is so much in this great book of ours! The whole thing is jam-packed with revolutionary thoughts! Read a gospel. Read about the early church. Read the epistles and the instructions on how to live. It's earth-shattering stuff! When you read looking to change, you will find there's a lot there. It's scary stuff! The call to action is hard to miss unless you've decided you're living a comfortable life and would like God to approve how you live.

We don't need the 10 steps to living a radical life. We don't need a code of conduct for the church. We don't even need blog posts of this nature! What we need is a desire to change accompanied by an honest reading of the Bible, constantly going back to the source and rediscovering how we ought to live. I suppose that means you should leave your computer and go pick up the Bible that's looking a little dusty there. But if you need a bit more motivation, I will likely be posting again on just a few ways I think we need to re-envision our lives and churches.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Church Has Different Faces (Part II)

Where the Episcopal Church had all the grace and stateliness of the old world, Zion had the light of new life. Built on a hill, Zion is appropriately named and I was struck by the brightness of this church. A city on a hill cannot be hidden, indeed! Where St. Luke was red, Zion was white. This church did not have the mystique of St. Luke's, but it was alive! People were bustling around, greeting one another, smiling and talking. Children were waving their palm leaves. It was a chaotic friendliness.

Zion Lutheran Church in Kalamazoo, MI
As the service began, the chaos subsided into a comfortable rhythm. An organ prelude. A gospel
reading. A hymn. A congregational response. Another New Testament reading. Offertory. Then, it was the time for what we were all looking forward to: the Cantata! The choir and orchestra were superb.

One song in particular grabbed me and forced me to consider what it was we were celebrating. Called “One Day,” this song began with the women singing in subdued voices about the sin that “was as black as could be.” Then the men joined in with a drum pounding the unrelenting story of the man who was born of a virgin, but was rejected and nailed to a tree. The chimes brought in the next part of the story: the grave could not hold Him! As the piece crescendoed, it told the story of triumph. O glorious day! This musical presentation of the gospel was so beautiful, I wanted to cry and laugh all at the same time.

Of course, I am also biased in favour of Zion because they sang one of my favourite hymns: “What Wondrous Love is This.” I will forgive the choir for stealing my favourite verse, but only because they did such a good job of it!

There were other things along the way that made this time so meaningful. Because the words were printed in the bulletin, I was able to reflect on them and think about our description of heaven as home, the idea that Christ's life and death are both expressions of His love, the centurion's realization of Christ's divinity before His resurrection, and the appearance of sight—excuse the pun—in our Scriptures and songs (i.e. we speak of receiving sight at the cross, Paul was blinded at the same time he first recognized Christ as Lord, God's gift to Simeon was being able to see the promised Christ before his death, etc.). It was a good service and the crowning touch was receiving palm leaves of my own as we left the sanctuary! This is the face of Christ's bride.

The Church Has Different Faces (Part I)

St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo, MI
As we pulled up to the Episcopal church, I was struck by the European architecture and longed to have a few minutes to explore the building's various nooks and crannies. The doors and hallways led off rooms as if put there as an afterthought. As we walked through the arches from one hallway to another, we passed various pieces of art—postmodern, traditional, and everything in between. This eclectic collection of pieces only served to give the place an aged charm. And as far as American buildings go, it was pretty old—176 years old, to be exact.

It was the main sanctuary that took my breath away though. I love the colour red. It's majestic, bold, and in the right shade, it demands reverence. The sanctuary had been dipped in the colour of blood. And soaring over the padded pews, beautiful stained glass windows let in the sun's light. Everywhere I turned, there were palm branches, the green leaves proclaiming life and a reminder that this faith of ours is not a remnant of the past. These symbols of faith surrounding me were not merely vestiges of a dead religion. Our God lives! But I was struck by the emptiness. There were no people to affirm this truth.

Forgive me as I get carried away in describing the physical church. You see, we arrived at 8 am and the Palm Sunday service had been moved to 9 am, so I had ample opportunity to gaze on the beauty surrounding me. But we also met the church embodied in the person of Charlie Large. Charlie met us coming up to the church doors and graciously allowed us into the locked building. He tottered his way through the halls, maintaining a steady narration on the building's various rooms—the Chapel, the crematorium*, the side room that was going to get a stained glass window soon... I got the impression that we were his special guests and he was delighted to give us a grand tour of his home. You see, 79 of his 89 years had been spent in this church. He had seen priests and bishops come and go (and had opinions on each of them!). He had seen this church dwindle from its hey day of over a thousand in the pews to a mere 300 or so.

In talking further with him, I realized that we were conversing with a research scientist, who had been a force to be reckoned with in his day (although I also gathered that the current bishop still thought he was a force to be reckoned with!). He told us about how research had been conducted back in his day. We heard about his friend's dogs and his late wife's inability to stand winters (I could empathize!). We learned about the current priest's compassion for children and the special service they conducted for them on Saturday nights. When we took our leave of Charlie (to find the service in the park he mentioned), I could not help thinking about this spry, opinionated old man wandering through the building and welcoming a couple lost individuals into his church and hoping I might see him again before he departs to cross the river!

*This is the term Charlie used. It was a room where the ashes of the deceased were kept.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

That Dang Mammon (Part 1)

[The second author speaks! What follows is a letter from Chuck to his church.]

So, the grim, incessant economic forecasts grind on: the “financial cliff”, sequestration, lagging economy, sagging job market, rising prices—and the utter inability of politicians to agree on an economic policy that is truly good for the country. (Will Rogers used to say that we’d be better off if we bundled up all the politicians and sent them to Washington where they couldn’t do any harm. Wonder what he’d say about their seeming inability to do anything once they get there—but I am off point.)

Everybody is talking about money and what to do with it. The foreboding financial horizon is enough to convince us that money really is the root of all evil. (I know that’s not what the text says, but it works here. Truer words ne’er spoken: “Among the things that money can’t buy is what it used to.”)

At the beginning of this year, we suggested that one of our goals in the coming months should be to develop good stewardship practices. Someone asked me if that meant there would be more sermons on giving money. My response: “No more than usual.” Honestly, as you know, I don’t do too many sermons on money. I figure that if faithful Christians don’t know by now that we ought to give regularly, freely, and generously from a heart of gratitude, then another sermonic harangue will not likely make much difference.

But one question, one with a sharper edge, has surfaced several times in recent conversations: “Why should I give to the church at all?” Now that is a legitimate query that deserves a sincere response (if for no other reason than, according to Barna and Gallup, giving to churches is at an all-time low across the nation).

The way I see it, there may be numerous reasons for the question at hand: (1) “The economy” (that’s all you have to say); (2) The bunker mentality engendered by “the economy”; i.e., hunker down, conserve, spend only what is essential—and church is a non-essential. (You heard about the husband who said to his wife as they planned their budget: “Let’s start with the basic necessities—food, clothing, and shelter. We have a choice of any two.); (3) The dramatic rise in appeals for contributions from many other good causes (I get at least two letters every day soliciting donations and three or four calls a day from fundraising organizations; some Christian organizations are working to convince me that “the church” is passé and that they are the new, cool cause to support); and (4) “giving to the church” just doesn’t have the cachet it once possessed; the idea seems so old-fashioned in these modern times in which there are many other tantalizing places to spend our cash.

I suspect there may be other, more basic reasons; e.g., if the church is incidental in a person’s life, then giving to it will be low priority as well. And possibly there is a paucity of clarity on what we find in the Bible about giving.

So, can we talk?  The topic of giving is touchy for some: we don’t want to be made to feel guilty and we don’t want to be told what to do! I get that. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the fact that the business of giving is a substantive issue in Scripture: giving of one’s personal resources is an ancient practice of God’s people found in the Law, in the Temple and sacrificial system, and in the early church. Jesus spoke more about money (and what it says about one’s spiritual state) than almost any other topic. Paul seemed to be convinced that generous giving is an action that reveals the heart of authentic, Christian faith.

To simplify the matter just a bit, let’s start with one very familiar passage: I Corinthians 15:1-16:1. This text contains a most fascinating juxtaposition of two concepts: a soaring treatment of the resurrection and a pragmatic instruction regarding taking an offering. Imagine that.

God raised Jesus from the dead!
Paul does not spare words to declare the impact of this single event. It changed history. It changes you and me, forever. It shapes how we live, the way we see each other, and what we think is most important. It is our hope, our rescue from the final enemy . . . and God did it because He loves us.

Now, concerning the collection . . . .
In his next (written) breath, Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that they need to be giving regularly and generously, setting aside (their gifts) “on the first day of the week”.

A remarkable connection between theology and practice! How did he bridge these disparate topics so easily? Giving, it appears, is a natural response to God’s free gift of grace. The degree to which one easily turns loose of one’s highly valued yet so very temporal stuff is a measure of the degree to which one has grasped the implications of eternal life.

So, the issue is one of allegiance, devotion, and gratitude—not “owing God” or “grudging obligation” or “giving so that you get something.” Giving is not a quid pro quo arrangement. God does not bribe you with a promise of a return on your investment nor does He does He threaten you with holy extortion (i.e., “If you don’t give, He will take it from you.” Ever heard that preached?)

Rather, you give freely because you have received freely. You give gladly because in so doing you show that your highest allegiance is to Him, to things above, and not to “mammon” and things below. You give to His Church because in so doing you give Her life, you broaden Her reach, you participate directly in the work of infinite God in finite world.

God forbid that our church should ever become so “money oriented” that the topic consumes our conversation. God equally forbid that we neglect to proclaim that our giving is a genuine act of worship, a holy sacrifice, a divine liturgy, a profound, public means of proclaiming the goodness of God, and an affirmation that there is a direct connection between how we live our future hope and what we do with our present stuff.

I picked up the following from some ancient source . . .

Do you faithe this life from death?
May your heart then take and seal it . . .
Do you take this Christ as Lord?
May your life henceforth reveal it . . .
Do you see this Church—His Bride?
May your hands be op’n to heal it.

There is much more that should be said on this subject. We will pick up next time with an overview of what the Bible says about giving.

In the meantime, on this lovely, almost-but-not-quite spring day, I am overwhelmingly delighted to be on the great adventure with you. Eager to give freely in accord with what I have freely received, I am, as always,


Old man to beautiful, young trophy wife: “Would you still love me if my money was all gone?”
Beautiful, young wife: “Of course, I would still love you. Don’t be silly. And I would miss you, too.”