Monday, April 28, 2008

Emma - Day 1

My friend Joe recently found some great video footage of Emma's first hours of life. Check this out!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Matthew 9:1-17 - "Learning to Party"

KNU International English Church

Josh Broward

April 27, 2008

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the classic Treasure Island, kept a diary of his daily events. Once, he wrote a short account of his day as if it was an amazing event: “I have been to Church today, and I am not depressed.” Amazing!

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that he might have become a pastor except for one problem. Most of the pastors he knew acted like funeral directors.

Abraham Lincoln said, “If all the people who fell asleep in church on Sunday morning were laid out end to end … they would be a great deal more comfortable.”[1]

I heard about an editorial in an English magazine. The writer talked about how most people had lost faith in the church and had stopped attending worship services. The title of the article was, “God to Leave Church of England.”
Following the precedent set by leading former Anglicans, God has indicated that He too is to leave the Church of England. … According to sources close to God he’s been unhappy for some time with the direction the Anglican Church has been taking and has now finally had enough. A Church of England spokesman said, “Losing God is a bit of a blow, but it’s just something we’re going to have to live with.”’[2]

There was a small town where almost everyone went to the same little church. One man was caught doing some very bad things, and he was banned from church. When he went to the doors on Sunday morning, they told him to go away. The man walked away and complained to God, “They won’t let me in, Lord, because I’m a sinner.” God answered him, “What are you complaining about? They won’t let me in either!”[3]

Read Matthew 9:1-17.

Sometimes religion has a way of sucking the life out of us. Sometimes religion dries up our grace and love so that the more religious we become the less love we feel and the less grace we show to others.

Jesus came to change this.

In our passage today, we have three very different stories: a paralyzed man who gets up and walks, a sinner who becomes a disciple, and some questions about religious duty. In each of these stories, Jesus challenges our view of religion.

In the first story, some people brought a paralyzed man to Jesus. They carried him in on a mat. Jesus was so impressed by their faith that he forgave the paralyzed man. Did you catch that? The paralyzed guy didn’t do anything or say anything. He was just laying there.

There’s a lot we could say about this, but here’s the basic point for today. Jesus forgave the guy before he had any faith, before he repented, before he even said, “I’m sorry.” Jesus forgave the guy before he did anything. Jesus gave him a total offer of forgiveness with no strings attached: “You are forgiven. Your sins are wiped away. Your relationship with God is restored.” The guy had not changed or prayed or even made a decision to change. He was just there in the presence of Jesus, and he was forgiven.

In the second story, we meet the bottom of the moral society: a tax collector. Tax collectors collected taxes from Jews to give to the Roman rulers, and they were also free to collect extra taxes to keep for themselves. They abused their people for their own profit.

I’ve been trying to think of what would be a modern-day equivalent of a tax collector. A tax collector might be like a drug dealer or a pimp[4]. They make their money by destroying the lives of others. They manipulate the lives of others for their own profit. They are the parasites of our community. Most of us feel a deep sense of disgust or even hatred toward pimps and drug dealers. They are morally repulsive to us. We could not imagine even having a friendly conversation with one of those people.

But Jesus walks up to a tax collector – think drug dealer or pimp – and says, “Follow me and be my disciple.” Remember, being a “disciple” didn’t just mean listening to Jesus teach or trying to be a good person. For a Jewish rabbi, like Jesus, his disciples were people who were training to become rabbis. So Jesus says to this tax collector – one of society’s greatest moral failures, “Follow me and be my disciple. You’ve got what it takes to be a rabbi. You can become like me. You’ve got what it takes to teach people what God really wants.”

What? Are you kidding me? Sure, maybe he could become a “Christian” – whatever we think that means – but a Rabbi? A moral instructor? A preacher? Jesus invites the lowest of the low to become the highest of the high.

Again, notice that Matthew didn’t repent first. Matthew was still sitting there at his tax table doing his dirty business, stealing from his own people. Jesus interrupted his life with grace and said, “I’ve got something better for you. Come and be like me.”

Matthew – the tax collector, Matthew – the pimp, Matthew – the disciple, Matthew – the Rabbi.

The story continues when Matthew throws a party. Matthew invites Jesus and all of his religious crew and all of his old tax collector buddies and “other notorious sinners.” These weren’t the people who forget to read their Bibles or accidentally-on-purpose sleep too late on Sunday morning. These were the people who had stopped trying to be moral. They were the out-in-the-open sinners, and all of them come together with Jesus for a big, fat party.

The religious people have finally had enough. They demand, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”

See, this was a big deal. Jesus was breaking the rules big time. In Jewish culture, sharing a meal together is like signing a pact of friendship. It is “a guarantee of peace, trust, fraternity, and forgiveness: the shared table symbolizes the shared life.”[5] In his book Jesus Before Christianity, Albert Nolan explains, “By accepting them as friends and equals Jesus had taken away their shame, humiliation, and guilt. By showing them that they mattered to him as people, he gave them a sense of dignity and released them from their old captivity. … Moreover, because Jesus was looked upon as a man of God and a prophet, they would have interpreted his gesture of friendship as God’s approval of them. They were now acceptable to God.”[6]

This was unacceptable to the religious people. “Sinners are sinners, and we need to treat them as they are – unacceptable outsiders.”

But for Jesus, they were already forgiven. For Jesus, the door was wide open for a restored relationship with God. That Matthew Party was a picture of the Kingdom of God. Life with God is a great party, and everyone is invited – no matter what, no exceptions. Every last person on earth is invited to the great party of life with God. All is forgiven. All is forgotten. All we have to do is accept the invitation.

Some people go in to the party.

Some people stay outside and complain that God shouldn’t throw parties like this – letting just anyone in.

The third story builds on this. The disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and complain that Jesus’ disciples aren’t religious enough. All of the other religious people spend large amounts of time fasting and mourning. They go for days at a time without eating and cry out to God in repentance and sadness. But Jesus disciples live like there’s a constant party. What’s the deal Jesus? Why aren’t you’re followers doing the normal religious stuff?

Jesus says, “Wherever I am, there is a permanent party! I’m like the groom at the wedding reception. As long as I’m here, people need to eat their cake, drink their punch, and get out on the dance floor and celebrate!”

Then Jesus talks about patching old clothes with a piece of new cloth and putting new wine in old wineskins. The new cloth shrinks and rips the old clothes. The new wine expands and breaks the old wineskins. The problem is that the new stuff is changing and dynamic, but the old stuff is too old to change.

The Kingdom of God and the old religious practices don’t always mix. Sometimes we have to start over. The Kingdom of God is dynamic and changing. The Kingdom of God is alive! It’s a party. It’s a celebration of new life. People are being forgiven. People are being healed. People are getting new lives. Joy, freedom, and acceptance rule. Love is King. Joy is everywhere.

Everyone is invited to the party, and the party itself becomes an atmosphere of healing. Brennan Manning explains, “The living presence of Jesus awakened joy and set people free. Joy was in face the most characteristic result of all His ministry to [outcasts]. … [They] discovered that sharing a meal with Him was a liberating experience of sheer joy. … The contagious joy of Jesus … infected and freed his followers.”[7]

Walter Kasper brings this all home for us: “Salvation is joy in God which expresses itself in joy in and with one’s neighbor.”[8]

If the Kingdom of God is a party, then Robert Hotchkins is right: “Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is in being a Christian.”[9]

Celebration changes us. It gives us life. It restores our souls.

I’m reading a leadership book about Southwest Airlines, the only major U.S. airline that has been profitable every single year for the last 30 years, and they make big deal out of celebrations. They say, “The cost of not responding to the human desire for celebration is very high. Celebration enhances our humanity. Without celebration, we are robbed of the life and vitality that energizes the human spirit. Latent and undeveloped though it may be, there is within our nature as human beings an inherent need to sing, dance, love, laugh, morn, tell stories, and celebrate. … To deny our need to celebrate is to deny part of what it means to be human.”[10]

Maybe that’s why Jesus made more wine for the wedding in Cana. (See John 2:1-12). Maybe that’s why Jesus celebrated and defended Matthew’s party. Maybe that’s why Jesus came “feasting and drinking” and why people said he ate too much and drank too much (Mathew 11:19). Jesus loves parties!

Here are our basic choices.

Option A: Be like John the Baptist and the Pharisees. Do you want to go around pointing out how wrong everyone is? Do you want to beat yourself up all the time because you aren’t good enough? Do you want to spend your time complaining that your church isn’t what you want it to be?

Option B: Be like Jesus. Do you want to forgive before people even ask? Do you want to receive God’s radical grace for yourself and share it with others? Do you want to live with joy and freedom? Do you want to eat and drink and celebrate in the ongoing party of God’s Kingdom?

Option B sounds like a lot more fun. Option B sounds a lot more like Jesus.

So here’s what you do to choose Option B.

Step 1: Accept God’s party invitation. You are invited to the feast of grace. You can’t buy your way in or stay in by being good enough, but you have a free ticket – just because of God’s love. Accept God’s radical grace and join the party.

Step 2: Learn to party. Most of us have spent so much time outside of parties that we don’t know what to do when we get in a party. We just kind of stand there with a drink in our hand looking around feeling awkward. We’ve got to learn to party. We’ve got to learn how to enjoy life, learn how to celebrate, learn how to live with joy and freedom and acceptance of others.

Step 3: Invite others to the party. Be like Matthew. Throw a Matthew Party. Get together some religious people and some irreligious people, and throw a great party. Your party will become a living sermon explaining the Kingdom of God. Your party will teach God’s grace and God’s joy better than anything I can say or do here.

If we do this, we will change the world! And we’ll have fun doing it.


[After the sermon, our church will sing some very upbeat praise songs to help us respond with celebration. Then we will truly CELEBRATE the Lord's Supper. As soon as I call the people up to receive communion, a series of music videos will begin, starting with Kool and the Gang's "Celebrate." It will be a party atmosphere. We will have 3 different couples serving communion. After people receive communion, they will move on to the front of the church where snacks and drinks will be set up. We will be passing out balloons and doing face painting. Hopefully, it will all be a lot of fun and something that will really help us understand what it means to join the party of the Kingdom.]

[1] All of the above are from Nicky Gumble, Questions of Life, (Colorado Springs: Cook, 1996), 11, 217.

[2] Nicky Gumble, “Christianity - Boring Untrue And Irrelevant?” Alpha, downloaded 4.24.08.

[3] Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, (Sisters, Oregon: Multinomah, 2000), 31.

[4] A “pimp” is a business manager for prostitutes.

[5] Manning, 59.

[6] Quoted in Manning, Ragamuffin Gospel, 60.

[7] Manning, 61-63.

[8] Quoted in Manning, 63.

[9] Quoted in Manning, 143-144.

[10] Kevin and Jackie Freiberg, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, (Austin, Texas: Bard, 1996), 177.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Any Babysitters Out There?

So for the second week in a row, when date night rolled around, Sarah and I had to scrape together some semblance of babysitting from the on-demand child care centers here in SsangYong Dong. Unfortunately, we got a late start, and everything was closed by 7pm. What's the deal? Isn't this prime time for their business?
Anyway, if any one out there in Cheonan knows where we can find a good babysitter, please let us know? We would be happy to pay a student a little to take care of Emma. If any one is interested in playing with Emma for a Friday night here and there, we would be forever - or at least for a good long short term - in your debt.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Matthew 8:18-27 - "Who's Asleep?"

KNU International English Church
Josh Broward
April 13, 2008

Read Matthew 8:18-27.

The first thing for us to notice here is that Jesus called his disciples to follow him “to the other side of the lake.” This meant that they were leaving the Jewish territory and going into the Gentile territory. This is the first time in Matthew that Jesus has taken this radical step.

When the first guy says, “I’ll follow you wherever you go,” he probably means – even into Gentile territory. “Jesus, anywhere you go, I’ll go, even into the dark and dirty places of our world.”

Jesus responds to this guy and to the next guy with two difficult sayings. We could talk all day about what these mean, but the basic point is very simple: discipleship is not easy. Following Jesus is not easy. It involves sacrifice, and it challenges our basic perspectives on life. Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, follow me now. Don’t wait. Even if the road is difficult, even if it turns your life upside down, follow me.”

Not long after they started their journey across the lake or sea of Galilee, a storm came up. When Matthew says there was a “storm,” he says it was a seismos megas. This is the same word for “earthquake.” This was a mega-earthshaking-storm! The front of the boat is literally covered up by the waves. Now, remember, at least some of the disciples are professional fishermen. They have been through storms before, but this storm was freaking them out.

But there’s Jesus in the back of the boat, catching up on some sleep after a hard day of work. There’s an earthquake-like storm going on, the disciples are scared to death, and Jesus is snoozing on a pillow.

The disciples cry out: “Lord save us! We’re going to drown!” (Mt. 8:25). In Mark’s version of the same story, they say, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” (Mark 4:38).

When I started thinking about this, I remembered that other people in the Bible felt like God was asleep when they needed him most.

n When the people of Israel had been taken into exile, they cried out: “Wake up, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Get up! … Why do you look the other way? Why do you ignore our suffering and oppression? … Get up! Help us!” (Psalm 44:23-36).

n When David was being attacked by an enemy, he cried out, “Arise, O LORD, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Wake up, my God” (Psalm 7:6).

n Isaiah called out to God, “Wake up, wake up, O LORD! Clothe yourself with strength! Flex your mighty right arm! Rouse yourself as in the days of old” (Isaiah 51:9).

That made me wonder … when do we feel like God is asleep in our world? When do we feel like God has checked out of Hotel Earth?

n In the movie Tears of the Sun, based during a crisis in Africa, a priest gives a blessing, “Go with God,” and Bruce Willis’s character shoots back, “God already left Africa a long time ago.”

n When I was in university, I met a Jewish scientist on a train. Yacov described himself as a secular Jew. When he saw a documentary on the Holocaust in elementary school, he became an atheist. He said to himself, “There is no such thing as God or the chosen people, or else this would not have happened.”

n In the movie, Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey’s character, raises his fist and shouts up to heaven, “The only one not doing his job around here is you!”

Don’t you feel like that sometimes? Where is God? Look at this mess our world is in. Where is God when children are dying of hunger? Where is God when people are killing each other because of religion? Where is God when we are destroying our air and water and plants for the sake of “progress”? Where is God when people are trapped in hopeless cycles of poverty? Where is God? Has God abandoned us? Is God asleep?

If video doesn't play, click here to watch it in its original context.

Maybe we need to ask a different question. Who is asleep in our world? God is not asleep. We are. According to Jesus, God is there with the suffering people, suffering with them. We are the ones who are sleeping. It’s like we are sleepwalking through life. We are living life, but we aren’t really awake to what’s happening around us.

I did a little research on sleepwalking this week. It seems that 18% of the world's population is prone to sleepwalking.[1] Sleepwalkers seem to be awake when they are up walking around, but they are actually still sleeping. Sleepwalkers do a wide range of things while they are sleeping: have a conversation, get dressed, go to the bathroom, clean the house, move furniture, cook, eat, drive a car, and even have sex.[2]

I know some of you are thinking, “How can I get my wife to sleep walk more? She’ll clean the house, cook breakfast, and have sex. This is great! It’s the perfect scenario for working moms, right?”

When I was in college, one of my roommates was a sleepwalker. One night I found him having a long conversation with a poster on the wall.

Sarah used to sleep walk when she was a girl. Once she dreamed that she was putting clothes in a laundry bin, and she woke up to find that she had thrown all of her sheets and blankets out her bedroom window. Another time, when Sarah was five or six years old, Sarah walked into her parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night. She walked up next to her parents’ bed, turned around, pulled her pants down, and sat down like she was using a toilet. Then, she got up and went back to bed. (No – in case you are wondering – she didn’t actually pee on the bed.)

Sleepwalkers do some crazy stuff. They are sort of half-functioning. Their minds are only half working. They are moving through life, but they don’t remember it, and they aren’t actually engaging with the real world. They are half-waking and half-sleeping.

Many of us go through life like this. We are only half-awake. We are sleepwalking through life. We go through the motions. We do OK at our jobs and with our families, but we are basically out of touch with the world around us. We are living, but only half-living.

We have faith, but we aren’t living it out. We’ve got this faith in Jesus, but it’s not shaping the way we live. We are sleepwalking through our world – having conversations with posters, saying things without meaning, and doing things that don’t make any sense. Our world is dying in the streets, and we are only concerned about what is happening in our living room. 24,000 people die of hunger every day, and our churches are singing praise choruses and having debates about whether we should use paper plates or plastic plates for the fellowship dinner.

We need to wake up! We need to see the real world and start living in the real world.

Mad as Hell video:

(We will show a slightly edited version in church.)

Wake up church! It is time for some righteous anger – anything that will break us out of our status quo sleepwalking. I am so tired of church as usual. Imagine how our world could change if all of us around the world would wake up and start addressing the problems and opportunities of our generation.

It’s time for us to get angry: angry about wasting our time while the world is dying. It’s time for us to get hopeful: hopeful that we can actually do something about the world’s crises. It’s time for us to wake up!

Let’s wake up, church! Let’s be a church that wakes up! Let’s be a church where Jesus comes alive and starts changing the world!

That is why I’m still here. Over the past six months or so, I’ve been asking myself what is next for me. How long will I pastor this church? How long will we stay here? With so many poor nations in the world, why are we still here in the 11th richest nation in the world? So then, I started asking a different question. What is the best thing I can do for the world? If following Jesus means, actively working for the good of all people, like I said a few weeks ago, then how do I do that? For right now, I think the best thing I can do is to help this church wake up and engage our world, to help us open up to the life of Jesus in us, and to work with Jesus to address the crises of our world.

Discipleship is getting into that boat and facing the storms of human problems. We get into the boat, knowing that there will be storms, but also knowing that Jesus is with us and with them - and he is not asleep. My passion, for the next few years, is to help us live this out. Let’s be a church that wakes up!

What will it mean for our church to wake up? At the very least, it will mean that we will start to do things differently. We will try out new stuff. We will do stuff that most churches don’t do. We will get engaged in our world, and we let God change our world – one life, one community at a time.

What does it mean for you to wake up? First of all, we all need to ask ourselves a basic question: “Am I doing the right thing with my life? Am I working the kind of job God wants me to work?” Does God really want you to be teaching English or working in the business world, or does God want you to engage more directly in the pain and struggle of our world?

After that question, we need to ask a different question: “If this is the job that God wants me to have, how can I wake up while I do this job?”

If God wants you in business, how can you use your business influence to help people in developing nations pull out of poverty? How can you reduce environmental pollution and waste in your business?

If God wants you in science, how can you use those scientific skills to engage the problems that affect the poorest people in our world? Get a government grant and start helping people!

If God wants you to be a teacher or a student, how can you help your class and your school wake up to the world around you? Maybe you’ll ask them to become pen-pals or e-pals with students from a developing nation. Maybe you’ll teach lessons or write papers on the crises of our world and how we can help. Maybe your school will collect supplies for a school in a developing nation.

When Jesus calmed that storm, the disciples were amazed. They looked at Jesus and said, “Who is this man? Even the winds and the waves obey him?”

If we wake up and enter the storms of our world with the power of Jesus, (feeding the hungry, healing the sick, eliminating poverty, setting addicts free, educating the hopeless), people will look at us in awe, and they say, “Who are these people? Poverty and hunger and hatred disappear wherever they go.”

Here’s the deal: God is inviting us on a wild ride. If we get into this boat with Jesus, there will be a seismos megas for us – a big earth-shaking storm. Our world is going to get shaken up. Following Jesus into the storms of our world will change everything for us.

We are like the two guys standing on the side of the beach. We sing our praise: “Jesus’ I’ll follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus says, “This isn’t an easy trip. It will rock your world, but that’s a good thing. Your world needs a good shaking, so come on! Follow me!”

The Bible never tells us what happened to those two guys standing on the shore. We don’t know if they got into the boat or stayed on the shore.

What about you?

Are you going to stay on the shore where it’s safe and sleepy?

Or will you get in the boat with Jesus where life is wild but real?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The World Is Flat 3.0 - Reflection 1

A few weeks ago, on our anniversary trip, Sarah and I stopped into the English book mecca in Korea: What the Book. It's a small book store ... in a basement ... a few blocks off the beaten path. What makes it so special? All of the books are in English - 100%!! Most of the big book stores here in Korea have a few shelves of English books, but no one has selection like this. I loved it!
One of my finds was The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman. (This is his third edition of the book in as many years.) I got it because I thought it would help me understand postmodernism, which is becoming one of my new passions for research. I LOVE THIS BOOK!!
I'm going to write some reflections on it as I move along. Here is stage number one.

Why is the world "flat"? Discovering that the world was round was a big deal right - Christopher Columbus and all of that, right?
Here's how Friedman explains it: Flat "means equalizing, because the flattening forces are empowering more and more individuals to reach farther, faster, deeper, and cheaper than ever before, and that is equalizing power - and equalizing opportunity, by giving so many more people the tools and ability to connect, compete and collaborate. In my view, this flattening of the wolrd is the most important thing happening in the world today ... one that affects everything from individual empowerment to culture to how hierarchical institutions operate" (x).

Friedman says "there have been three great eras of globalization."
  1. Globalization 1.0 - (1492-1800) - beginning when Columbus set sail for the "New World." The key forces were brute national strength and cunning application of that strength. Individuals participated in globalization through the work and activity of nations. World size: large --> medium.
  2. Globalization 2.0 - (1800-2000) beginning with the Industrial Revolution. The key driving forces of this change were multinational companies. Individuals participated in globalization through their companies (and the companies doing business in their market place). World size: medium --> small.
  3. Globalization 3.0 - (2000 -????) beginning with the mass availability of personal computers and high speed internet access. The unique force that causes this change "is the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally." Naturally (but also shockingly), then, individuals participate in globalization as independent individuals. World size: small --> tiny.
This is a radical, cataclysmic, earth-shaking change! We are just beginning a very wild ride. Our world is changing faster than ever before, and the pace of change is increasing faster than ever before. What is the source of all of this change? People around the world are now able to participate in shaping the future. Because people in almost any country can have access to almost any information and can develop almost any skill and can create new information which can then be accessed by all other people all over the world, we have multiplied our mental workforce exponentially.
Maybe a visual picture will help. Imagine that before the internet, the world changers (the people who invented stuff and thought up the really cool new ideas and developed new systems) could all fit into one large auditorium in New York City - granted a very crowded room. N0w, with the massive implementation of the internet, the world changers are filling up all of New York City, all of New York State, and are spilling out all over the entire North American continent. Soon, they will take up every inch of the globe. (And this metaphor is not intended to be America-centric. I just had to pick somewhere as the starting point.) The point is that people all over the world are now able to be active players in shaping their own destiny and also the destiny of the entire world.
The world is flat ... and getting flatter all the time.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Shot out to the Jayhawks fans

All right, here's a shot out to the Jayhawks fans out there. After living in Kansas City for almost 10 years, I know you're out there, and I know some of you read here. So, congratulations on finally bringing the NCAA national trophy back to Topeka. After 20 years of being ranked #1 at one time or another without ever finishing #1, you guys deserve to celebrate.

(For all of my non-American friends, you probably need a little explanation here. Every year all of the big universities in the USA have a huge nation-wide basketball tournament. The winners of this tournament get millions of dollars in advertisement bonuses plus bragging rights for years to come. As strange as it seems to outsiders, college sports are a huge deal in the USA.)

Life's Stubborn Beauty

I live in a concrete jungle. Our apartment is on the 9th floor of a 15 story building. I pass through a 9 story building every day on my way to my office, which is 5 stories up. All around Cheonan, 15-20 story apartment buildings dominate the landscape, blotting out the beautiful mountains which hide behind the concrete curtains.

There are a few strips of grass here and there, usually dotted with trees. We were delighted a few years ago when the city built a beautiful little park a block from our apartment. This is the lone substantial patch of green in our neighborhood. (The green is magnified by the green colored track and the green Astroturf soccer field, which together make up almost 50% of the park.)

However, concrete makes up the bulk of the scenery, most places where I go.

This spring, like most springs, I am wonderfully surprised by the stubborn beauty of life. After a long winter, the trees bud with leaves and flowers. The green of grass slowly takes over the dull browns of winter. I passed a bush today that was full of verdant leaves, and I wondered when it started budding. I pass it every day, but I hadn't noticed a single leaf before.

What strikes me the most, though, are the flowers that emerge, unplanted and untended in the most unlikely of places. In a small strip of grass, no more than 6 feet wide between our apartment and the sidewalk, beautiful, rich violet flowers have poked out, sort of hugging the ground on their short, weed-like stems. You all most have to look twice to notice that they are really flowers and not some child's discarded toys. But there they are, with all their beautiful color, hugging the earth like a child holding her mother's leg in the elevator.

Six feet lower, where the retaining wall and the sidewalk meet, life has shown itself to be even more unrelenting in its expression of beauty. Between the smallest crack of open space, dandelions have reared their golden heads. Shining with a yellow beacon, they shout to the world that beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places.

Beauty can be suppressed, but it cannot be snuffed out. God has made our world too relentlessly life inducing, too persistently beautiful. We cover the fertile earth with our bunkers and businesses, but the earth will not let us forget it. It conquers still with a shy purple flower here and a bold golden flower there, mistakenly thought by the unlistening eye to be weeds.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Greatest Movie #83: Titanic

Last night Sarah and I watched the modern classic romance Titanic. (Thanks KyungRan for the loan.)
However, I have to say that this time, both Sarah and I found the movie to be more about social critique than romance. Sure there is the steamy 24 hour romance between Jack and Rose, but that is kind of an overlay on a deeper social commentary. And even that romance serves a salvation function to rescue Rose out of the dead-end, dead-life system of the upper class rich folk, with all of their arrogance, gossip, indulgence, mutual expectation, and prejudice. Jack opens her eyes to a whole new world of possibilities, a whole new realm of experiences, free from the limiting system in which she felt trapped.

The ship itself is a microcosm of society. The different levels of the ship are stunning in their representation of our world. At the top are the first class passengers. They experience the height of luxury, prestige, and arrogance. Their rooms are suites. They travel with their own armies of servants and gear. Next come the second, third, and steerage class passengers. They are the middle class folk who somehow managed a ticket on this historic venture. They share rooms in bunk beds and eat in large dining halls where social rules are nearly non-existent. Next comes the engineering level. We see stunning shots of the machinery which makes this ship go and also of the neatly uniformed people who manage these well oiled pistons and levers. Finally, in the belly of the ship are the coal ovens. Here people labor in swealtering heat shoveling coal to fuel the massive steam engines, which fuel the pistons, which turn the propellers, which enable this voyage involving such luxury hundreds of feet above. This class of people sweat and ache and struggle 12+ hours a day covered in dirt and grime for the express purpose of enabling the frivolity of the people several stories above them.
This is a humbling and sobering picture of our world. Instead of being separated by levels of a ship, we are separated by levels of society, national development, careers, education, opportunity, etc. The people on the different levels do not have different values - despite the explicit claims of the first class passengers. Yet the underclasses labor away at jobs that serve the express purpose of making luxury possible for the people who were lucky enough or well positioned enough to make it to the first class seating.

A few other metaphors struck me as I watched this movie. I won't have time to flesh them out fully, but here they are in a nutshell.
1. Jack is a Christ figure - wooing us out of our broken systems to experience true life. His venture to help us experience true life and to win our love costs him his own life, but finally wins the reward of the affection of his beloved and her freedom to experience true life.

2. The Titanic is an emblem of our broken systems, including the church. The old ship is going down. The old systems are broken, but people are complaining about the cold and noise involved in getting into the lifeboats. Also, we request that our people keep playing, keep serving brandy, and keep up all appearances that everything is OK. This desire for stability is a direct contributor to the losses we will necessarily experience for not heeding the warning signs to adapt to change and to abandon the sinking ship.

3. 2,200 people were aboard the Titanic. 700 people made it into 20 lifeboats, which could have accommodated 1,400 or more. However, after the ship sank, only 1 boat came back to collect more passengers, and that was only after so much time had passed that most of the passengers had frozen to death in the icy waters. The boats had the potential to save 700 or more additional people, but they only pulled 6 live people from the water. Most of the boats stayed away from the swimming passengers because they were afraid the other passengers would swamp their boats and sink them all. The great irony is that most of the boats were only half full, and there was little risk of them being swamped. So they stayed at a comfortable distance listening to the screams and whistles of hundreds of dying people, knowing they could help, but afraid of the potential cost to themselves. This is SOOO like our world, where we are afraid to get involved in the plight of our starving, struggling neighbors because we are afraid they will swamp our boats. "We can't save the whole world, right?" Maybe, maybe not. But there are sure hundreds of people out there in the water who can get into our boats ... if we don't wait too long.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Judas and the Gospel of Jesus - Review

When my Mom and Dad came for Christmas, they gave me an N.T. Wright book, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus. I was eager to read stuff by N.T. Wright because he has been a formative thinker for many in the emerging and missional church movements. Christianity Today Magazine ranked him as one of the top 5 theologians of our time.
However, I wasn't all that eager to read a book about the Gospel of Judas - a newly discovered text from the 2nd century AD. I'm not all that in to conspiracy theories, and most of the people here in our church aren't either.
I wanted a light read, though, so I picked it up. I know - that says something weird about me that I consider a book about a 2nd century pseudo-gospel a "light read." I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked this book and particularly with how relevant his analysis is for us.
Here's his basic thought line.
1. "The Gospel of Judas" is a genuine text, authentically written in the early 2nd century, but it is not a "gospel" of Jesus of Nazareth. It is in a distinctly different genre and class from the canonical (biblical) gospels. Those are written close to history, heavily relying on history, growing out of Judaism. The Gospel of Judas is written within the context of 2nd century gnosticism and reflects that background in all of its style and theology. Gnosticism basically says that this world is bad (created by a weak or evil God) and that the spiritual world is the real deal (created by the one true God). Jesus came to rescue us out of this evil world of flesh and blood and to take us into the world of the spirit. Some of the quotes from the Gospel of Judas sound eerily like the cults in North America who committed mass suicide to "escape" into the heavenly (or alien) world by leaving their bodies behind.
2. N.T. Wright said we should reject the Gospel of Judas (as a description of Jesus) for two reasons: a) It's picture of Jesus has little resemblance to the Jesus of Nazareth we know from more historically reliable sources, and it makes almost no attempt to connect with history since its theology promotes a disconnect with the physical world. b) It's theology is bad. It promotes completely rejecting Judaism and all connection with the physical material world. This is contrary to the rest of the Bible and would lead to all sorts of negative consequences for our world.
3. However, the real twist comes in the final chapters. In the process of explaining why the Gospel of Judas doesn't measure up to what we should expect from a religious work in general, much less to what we expect from an orthodox Christian text, Wright also analyzes current Christianity and finds us lacking for the same reasons. According to Wright, and several scholars whom he cites, Protestant Gnosticism is rampant among us. Both liberals and conservatives fall into gnostic tendencies from opposite extremes. Liberals tend to act as if our moral actions in this world are irrelevant, since God only cares about our hearts. Conservatives tend to act like this world is inherently evil and damned, and that salvation will mean being rescued from this world. Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, proclaims that this world really matters because God is in the process of redeeming us and this world. Salvation will not be removal to heaven (and the subsequent destruction of the cosmos) but the rehabilitation of creation and all created beings who go along with God's rehabilitation process.
Let me try to rephrase this. The subtitle of the book is, "Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity?" N.T. Wright answers: "Well, partly, but not because of the we missed some secret conspiracy-theory information that the Gospel of Judas brings to light. We are actually, presently, missing true Christianity because we are unwittingly buying into the same lies (a.k.a. heresies) that caused the Gospel of Judas to be written in the first place."
I learned a lot, and I'm eager to read more from N.T. Wright. I give it 4 j's.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Adopting from Krasnodar, Russia

[UPDATE: This post is about 3 years old, yet it continues to generate lots of hits - probably from other parents hoping to adopt from Russia.  However, I must report that we were unable to complete an adoption.  Because we do not live in our country of citizenship, it is almost impossible for us to adopt.  There are very good laws to protect children from child trafficking which also impede our adoption process.  However, feel free to read this post as one of our hopes which has been put on the shelf until our situation changes.]

As we have proceeded on this journey toward adoption, we have experienced some milestone events which are similar to the milestones birth parents experience.

Searching for an adoption agency that would work with us in our unique situation (US citizens living in South Korea) was comparable to trying to get pregnant. This was a long and somewhat depressing process. Sometimes we felt like it was never going to happen.

Finally connecting with an adoption agency and completing the in-house portion of our home study was analogous to actually getting pregnant. This was a joyous occasion for us. This meant that we were actually making real progress toward adoption. This meant we could really begin in earnest. This meant that it was truly possible for us to do this now.

A few weeks ago, we had our third basic milestone. We had a phone conversation with our case manager in South Carolina, with the full-blown Souther accent, and she told us that our child will come from the Krasnodar region of Russia. This feels very similar to when we found out that Emma was a girl. This is our first in depth bit of information about our child. (We had already decided to adopt a boy.) Before I even got off the phone with our case manager, Sarah was already googling Krasnodar - first of all to find out where it is, secondly to look for pictures, and finally, to find out some basic information about that region. The adoption agency we chose - Christian World Adoptions - works in more than 20 regions of Russia, so early in the adoption process they assign parents to a particular region.

Krasnodar is in the far southwest corner of Russia. It is on the Black Sea and borders the nation of Georgia. It is just across the Black Sea from Turkey. (Maybe we can visit our friends Paul and Hoom when we go to pick up our son!) Krasnodar seems to be the name of both a city and the surrounding state or province.

The people seem to be basically European in appearance. This is a picture of a group of kids in an origami class.

Here are some basic demographics of Krasnodar from wikipedia.
  • Population: 5,125,221
  • Ethnicity
    • Russians - 86%
    • Armenians - 5%
    • Ukrainians - 3%
    • Other (30 more listed, all less than 1% each) - 6%
  • Population is 53.5% urban.
  • Climate: "Mediterranean" or in the south east "subtropical.
Here's some more info from
  • Krasnodar was founded by the Cossacs in 1793 to protect Southern borders of Russia. The original name Ekaterinodar meant 'Catherine's Gift'.
  • Krasnodar is the administrative center of Krasnodar Krai, the most populous southern region of Russia.
  • Krasnodar is situated on the River Kuban, approximately 1000 km (620 miles) south from Moscow, and 120 km (75 miles) north from the Black Sea.
  • Today Krasnodar is a dynamic modern city - major industrial, agricultural, and cultural center, one of fastest growing regions of Russia.
  • The population of Krasnodar (the city) is about 800,000 people, and it is 18th among the Russia's largest cities.
  • Krasnodar Territory is one of the most attractive parts of Russia, with its boundless steppes and high forest-covered mountains. Russia's two southernmost seas, Black Sea and Sea of Azov, wash the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. The mountains are the source of the many rivers that carve their paths through deep gorges and canyons.
  • Minerals produced here include oil, fuel gas, salt, hard coking coal, manganese ores, nickel, tin, copper ores, cement marl, volcanic muds, refractory clays, and lithographic stone. There are also huge deposits of construction and road-building materials, such as facing stone, shell rock, limestone, granite, marble, and more.
  • The fuel and energy complex accounts for more than 20% of the territory's industrial output. Krasnodar is considered an old oil-producing region of Russia. Oil has been produced there since 1864, and 68 oil fields are operating today.
  • With the highest quality soils and a favorable climate Krasnodar region has always been the principal "breadbasket" of the Russian Federation. It has 3% of all ploughed lands in Russia. It also has Russia's only specialized agricultural university. The region produces approximately 6% of meat and dairy products, 10% of all-Russian grain, 30% of fruit production, 60% of oilseed production, 90% of rice production and 97% of wine production.

That's probably enough for today, especially since this isn't nearly as interesting to most of you as it is to us.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Defining Vocabulary in the Homosexuality Discussion

A few weeks ago, I preached on Matthew 7:1-5, specifically, "Do not judge..." A small part of my sermon was calling us to be more compassionate and merciful to gay people inside and outside our community. One of my friends sent me an email later in the week asking for more information. I'd like to post part of her email and my response. I want to direct your attention particularly to how go about discussing homosexuality and how important it is that we are careful with what words we use and how we use them.

My friend:
I really enjoyed your sermon last week.  I really liked the part you said about going out of your way to show a gay person love.  I find
this is not the usual reaction for Christians, when it comes to homosexuals. But it seems like they need it the most! So, cheers to
that! I find it very difficult to understand them, but I know that I cannot judge them or their backgrounds that got them to where they
are. And I think that too much damage has been done by some people who say they follow Jesus, that they certainly don't need me to add to
it. My job is just to love them and accept them.

But, what I wanted clarification on, was what you said about the issue being debatable. Did you mean that many people debate whether it is a
sin? Or did you mean whether the Bible was unclear on it?

For me, the Bible is clear on the subject. There are many things that it doesn't say anything about, such as if music and dancing are okay
or if drinking in moderation is possible. But I feel that homosexuality is very clearly mentioned as off limits for the

I want to know, I guess, how you interpret Scripture.

My response:
Thanks for your feedback and your question.
Actually, in my sermon, when I said that homosexuality is "debatable" or "disputable," I meant that it is actually debated and disputed. I think that any time there are a wide variety of Christians (especially Christians whom we otherwise respect) who have differing opinions about an issue (ethical, political, theological), then we should approach those issues with a great deal of humility and a high expectation for mutual listening. I also tend to believe that we should not let issues like this (issues on which there is widespread standing disagreement) divide our fellowship.
Many Christians from a wide range of backgrounds and denominations take stances on both sides (or on the fence) on this issue. I have been very surprised to discover many otherwise very conservative Christian leaders who are fairly outspoken either in favor of gay marriage or in favor or an intentional stance of ambiguity.
Homosexuality is clearly in a different category than many other debatable issues (issues for which there is little or no direct discussion in the Bible). I think it is unwise and possibly prideful for us to say this issue is crystal clear when so many people within the body of Christ clearly disagree. I also don't think it will do to say that anyone who believes that homosexuality is OK is clearly not a Christian. So in terms of our interaction and discussion on this issue, I feel a deep need for humility and awareness that any of us (or all of us) might be wrong.

OK, so that's where I was coming from in the sermon, but that doesn't fully answer your question. You want to know what I believe and how I interpret scripture on this issue.
Before I answer that question, I think it would be good to discuss the issue of language. Many times our discussions and judgments get cloudy or inaccurate because of a muddled use of language. Here's what I mean. "Homosexuality" is a sexual or romantic attraction to the same gender. It is a descriptive term of a person's "orientation" or desires. A "homosexual" is a person who has or feels this orientation. "Homosexual practice" is sexual activity (including intention and mental fantasies) involved in a homosexual relationship.
As I understand it, even from the most conservative view point (which is still rationally consistent), only homosexual practice would qualify as sin. Having an illegitimate desire is not sinful. Acting on that illegitimate desire with our minds or bodies is sinful.
We have to apply the same standard that we apply to heterosexuals. For example, there were times when I was in college, when I really wanted to go to a Frat Party and have a one night stand. That desire was illegitimate. However, simply wanting to have sex was not sinful. That is very natural. If I had acted on that desire for a one night stand, or if I intentionally fantasized about what that would be like, then that would be sin.
My point here is that simply having homosexual desires or a homosexual orientation is not sinful. For example, there are many Catholic priests and nuns who are gay. The most famous was Henri Nouwen. He chose to be celibate so that he could remain faithful his vows within the Catholic church (and possibly to his understanding of the Bible - I don't know about that). Yet Henri Nouwen has been a source of inspiration for Christ-followers around the world. The fact that he was attracted to men and not to women is irrelevant since he didn't take action on that attraction.
This may not seem like an important point, but it is. When we condemn "homosexuality" in general, we are condemning people for their desires and orientations - regardless of how they have acted in response to those desires. We are condemning people who valiantly choose to be a single, celibate gay than any of the other options available to them.
From another perspective, my personal desires are for an abundance of unhealthy foods. I could eat ice cream and barbecue and nachos until I was 400 pounds. My desire for those foods is clearly out of balance and illegitimate (gluttony). However, I'm not acting on those desires to overeat (at least not often), so the desires remain the realm of potentiality (or temptation) not actual sin.
So, even though the language is a little awkward, I think we need to make the discussion about "homosexual practice" not "homosexuality." People may or may not be able to change their orientation or desires, but all people can change their actions. I know that there are several Christian programs to help gay people go straight, but they don't work for everyone.
Also, if we attack "homosexuality," most gay people will feel like we are attacking their very identity - who they are as a person. That is very different from attacking sins like: gossip, lying, debt, etc. Our identity is not usually wrapped up in those issues, but for most people their sexual orientation is part of their identity as a person.

I still didn't answer her last question - about how I interpret scripture on this issue - but I decided to stop there. I think this discussion of language is prior to how we interpret scripture, which is bound up in language. I don't think this is the time or place for me to make a definite statement about how we deal with the scriptures on this issue. However, I think it is fair to say that this issue is extremely complex and heavily laden with emotional connotations. We need to talk about it, and we need to talk humbly, with lots of grace, and with a deep desire to learn from the other people who are talking.
My prayer in all of this is that we will be truly faithful to Jesus in all of this, and being truly faithful may necessarily mean leaning hard toward grace and mercy.

The Shack - Review

I just finished reading a great book, The Shack. I got it on Sunday night, and by Tuesday morning I was done. That is incredibly fast for me.
Eugene Peterson's endorsement will give you a taste of why this book is good: "When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!"
Here's the basic plot summary from the back cover: "Mack's youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation, and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend."
The book specifically asks us not to give away the secrets of the book when writing reviews. Let me just say this. This book is great for several reasons.
1. It has soaring theology. It's picture of the Trinity is both shocking and beautiful.
2. This theology arises naturally - and without any effort to the reader - from within the flow of the narrative. The narrative gives birth to the theology, not vise-versa as in McClaren's trilogy.
3. This book gets at some of the core issues most of us wrestle with when dealing with spiritual things: the problem of suffering, the nature of God, and the nature of relationship with God.

As with any book, there are points at which I disagree with the author (William P. Young). If you read the book, we can talk about those. However, over all, I am blown away by this book's amazing picture of God and life transformed by God's loving presence. I highly recommend it: easily 5J's!
Thanks to Ron Thornton - a KNU newbie bound to be a regular conversation partner - for a great loaner!

ONE PRAYER - collective church series

What do you think about this?

You can read more about it at this site.
My prayer/sermon would probably be: "Make Us Connected."
Is participating in this worth diverging from our church's series on the book of Matthew? We'd have to leave out about 2 chapters of Matthew to be able to do this.
I'm interested in your feedback.