Monday, December 30, 2013

The Exiled King (Isaiah 62)

Once upon a time, there was a great King, who was just and fair and humble.  The motto of his Kingdom was: LOVE AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.  He taught his people how to live well.  The King helped his people really love each.  He taught them that everyone is connected, that one person’s success is a victory for all of us, and that another person’s suffering is a wound in all our hearts.  He taught people to live with kindness and mercy – helping the weak, befriending the lonely, hugging the children, celebrating with joy, and encouraging the good in all to flourish and grow.  His Kingdom grew, and his people prospered.
However, as is often the case, some powerful people wanted more power.  They didn’t like this love and justice philosophy.  They believed in the survival of the fittest.  They believed that everyone gets what they deserve.  The strong should get stronger, and the weak … Well, who cares about them anyway.
This group of power-hungry Powerfuls led a coup d’etat.  In a quiet revolt, they sent the King into exile and imposed a new government. Their motto was: FREEDOM AND HAPPINESS FOR ALL.  They filled the streets with their propaganda: “Let us throw off those ancient social norms.  Let us rid ourselves of the shackles of concern for others.  Live free.  Pursue happiness above all else.  If you want it, do it.  If you like it, buy it.  If you can’t afford it, work for it and work some more.  Anyone can have anything they want if they only work hard enough or smart enough.”
Most people gladly accepted this new government and their message about life.  It is not easy always being concerned about others.  Often that means putting aside what we want – at least for a while.  This new way of life was much easier.  It was such a relief simply to be concerned about yourself.  There was a time of celebrating and revelry in the streets.  Wine and women moved freely.
But carnival cannot last forever – especially not a carnival set on the philosophy of survival of the fittest.  Some people are simply not as strong.  They are pushed out of the way with reckless disregard for where they land.  Some people want to hold on to the bottle instead of passing it around.  Some people want to collect all the bottles for themselves.  A powerful fist or a thieving hand is glad to get the bottles moving again.
After the carnival fades, the System sets in. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Send Us All

Not like the vaulted cathedrals,
Not like the pews with names and reservations,
Not like the hair-sprayed televangelists,
Not like the nice churches who say nice things to nice people,
Here at our doors shall stand a sign: All are welcome!
Open hearts, aflame with the burning love of God,
Open, open, open, to all who come.

Keep, O normal churches, 
your nice people, 
your beautiful people, 
your people who have their shit together and put on pretty faces.

Give us your freaks and your punks, 
your hippies and granolas, 
your Goths and your bikers.
Give us your homeless and your unemployed,
your job-hoppers and bed-hoppers, 
your addicts and your hard drinkers.
Give us your hookers and your strippers,
your gamblers and smokers,
your dippers and your chewers.
Give us your church-haters and your liberals,
your atheists and agnostics,
your fundamentalists and your prudes.
Give us your gays and your lesbians,
your transvestites and transsexuals,
your offenders and your victims.
Give us your polluters and your tree-huggers,
your executives and lawyers,
your tax-evaders and your tax-collectors.
Give us your doubters and your name-it-and-claim-its,
your hypocrites and holier-than-thous,
your skeptics and your relativists.
Give us your seekers and your strugglers,
your lovers and haters,
your saints and your sinners.

Send us all of these, for they are like us.
We lift high the cross of Christ, 
Brother of exiles, Friend of sinners.
His nail-pierced hands shout world-wide welcome
For all who long to breathe free,
For all who long to find home,
For all who didn't measure up, 
For all who need a new start,
For all who want a new world.
We lift high the cross of Christ,
So that we will all be transformed together.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Trusting God's Sushi Bar - A Thanksgiving Post

I had to leave Asia to learn about God's sushi bar.
Let me explain.
After almost nine years in South Korea, my wife and I felt called to move back to the USA - in part so that I could pursue a PhD.  In addition to leaving behind a great church and great friends, we were also leaving a lot of stability in terms of finances and day to day life.  We traded two steady well paying full-time jobs for one steady part-time job and whatever else we could scratch together.
We expected that our small business hosting international students would flourish and provide us with significant margin again.  However, having three extra kids in our house for a few months was much more work than we expected, and we haven't been able to transition to longer term students.
The net result of that is two fold.  1) I can't even start thinking seriously about a doctoral program until we are more stable.  2) Sarah and I have scraped together a wide variety of part-time jobs to pay our bills, and, surprisingly, to regain margin one millimeter at a time.
In the past 10 months, I have earned income from at least 13 different sources, and Sarah's count is at least 5.  I have done some of the normal pastor things: my regular job at Duneland Community Church, a wedding, and a guest sermon.  I've also done some free lance writing for Northwest Indiana Times, Holiness Today, Standard, and Grace and Peace Magazine.  I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach writing as an adjunct professor at Olivet Nazarene University, and I'm 80% of the way through the approval process to teach as an adjunct at Indiana Wesleyan University.  Those are all within my normal skill set and experience base.  However, I have also done some environmental testing for a small business owner in our church, and I'm also the website administrator for the Northwest Indiana District of the Church of the Nazarene.  Both of those are out of left field.
I had to laugh when people at a pastors conference asked if I am bivocational.  I'm bi/tri/quad-vocational.  Categories don't fit what I'm doing right now.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Crowd Sourced Questions: Life and Church

We wanted to know what questions people are really asking.  For about two months, we asked our people to turn in their own questions and to poll their friends.  I even put my writing class students to work on this through homework assignments.  Today, we'll try to answer as many questions as possible in a rapid-fire two minute answer format.  
Previously, I posted the first two sets of questions: Questions about Theology and Questions about the Bible.   Here is the final set: Questions about Life and Church.

Feel free to offer up your own answers or questions in the comment section.  I'll try to post the audio of our Q and A time after we do it.  But for now, it may be helpful just to take a little refresher course on what questions people are actually asking - not just what questions do we think others should ask.

 Why are there so many denominations? Is this bad? Just preferences?

Should Christians drink alcohol?

Does God really expect people to wait until marriage to have sex?

What do we believe about women in ministry?

What about marriage roles? Should women submit to their husbands?

Why are Christians so judgmental or hypocritical?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Crowd Sourced Questions: Bible

We wanted to know what questions people are really asking.  For about two months, we asked our people to turn in their own questions and to poll their friends.  I even put my writing class students to work on this through homework assignments.  This Sunday, we'll try to answer as many questions as possible in a rapid-fire two minute answer format.  
Yesterday, I posted the first category of questions: Questions about Theology.
Here is the second category: Questions about the Bible. 
Feel free to offer up your own answers or questions in the comment section.  I'll try to post the audio of our Q and A time after we do it.  But for now, it may be helpful just to take a little refresher course on what questions people are actually asking - not just what questions do we think others should ask.

What is the mark of the beast?

What did they do with all that meat sacrificed at the temple?

What is a Nazirite, and how is it related to a Nazarene?

How was the Bible formed?  What about the Gnostic gospels?

Why is the God of the OT so different from the God of the NT?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Crowd Sourced Questions: Theology

We wanted to know what questions people are really asking.  For about two months, we asked our people to turn in their own questions and to poll their friends.  I even put my writing class students to work on this through homework assignments.  This Sunday, we'll try to answer as many questions as possible in a rapid-fire two minute answer format.  
Here is the first category: Questions about Theology.  Feel free to offer up your own answers or questions in the comment section.  (I'll try to post the audio of our Q and A time after we do it.)

 What is predestination, and what do we believe about it?

Can we lose our salvation?  Can we be separated from God?

What is hell like?

How could a loving God allow eternal punishment in hell?

Are there aliens? How would we make sense of aliens with our beliefs about God and Jesus?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

God and Suffering

         When I was in a student in Europe, I took a midnight train from Paris to Zurich.  I was too cheap to pay for a sleeping car, so I ended up talking all night with a man named Yacov.  Yacov described himself as a secular Jew.  He grew up in Israel, where he was educated in the Jewish faith.  
However, when he saw a documentary on the Holocaust in middle 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.”
Yacov is not alone.  How can a good God allow so much suffering?  The Jewish prophet Habakkuk had the same question.  A few centuries before Jesus, the Greek philosopher Epicurus was wrestling with the problem of thinking of a good and strong God in a broken and bruised world.  A few centuries after Jesus, St. Augustine was still asking the same question.  He had some different answers, but he was still kicking the same can along the same street.  
How can a loving God allow so much suffering?  This question never goes away.   Everyone seems to ask this at one time or another.  Without a doubt, this is the single most common theological question voiced in movies.  “Why, God?  How could God let this happen?”

----  Let’s make this personal.  At the end of each row, you'll find some cards and pens. Take a minute and write down on the card one instance of serious suffering.  It can be global or hyper local.  You can make it as personal or impersonal as you want.  I’m not going to ask you to show it to anyone.
Now, hold those up.  Hold up your example of suffering.  Raise your hand high.  This is why we are talking about this.  These cards are why we have to talk about this.  We know suffering.  We need some answers for why there are all these cards in the air and why there is so much suffering in the world.

Let me give a few disclaimers before we really get started here. 
1.  The Bible does not give a complete answer to this question.   The Bible is more focused on how to overcome suffering rather than focusing on why there is suffering in the first place.
2.  There is no way that I can give a complete answer today.  You and I both will probably leave here feeling a little unsatisfied with the answers we talk about today.  However, I hope that I can at least make this issue more manageable for us.

When we face the problem of suffering in the world, it can be overwhelming.  Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, murders, poverty, starvation, cancer.  It all piles up, causing us to wonder how a loving God could allow so much suffering.  Sometimes, the mountain of pain gets bigger and bigger, and we get smaller and smaller, until we can’t see anything else but the pain.  One thing I hope to do today is to shrink that mountain so that we can move past it.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Progress and Stuckness

OK, so maybe I just coined a new word there - stuckness - the state of being stuck.  In our Crowdsourcing series, as we address the big questions that we and our neighbors have about faith, what really stands out is that they are the same questions we’ve had for many decades (even centuries): science and faith, the problem of suffering, Christianity and world religions, judgmentalism and hypocrisy in the church.  We seem to be stuck with these.
But let’s talk about the progress, too.  Last week, as I looked at the rough and broken sheetrock that is still visible around our new and newly stained doors, two beautiful truths about our church hit me.
  1. We are obviously a work in progress.  Our interior paint job is better but not finished.  We still have temporary walls and curtains.  We have a thousand different improvements on our wish list, and it seems like at least a hundred are halfway done.  But we’re still welcoming in new people.  We’re a work in progress, and we know it.  We aren’t trying to hide it.  Come on in, and don’t mind the dust.  That describes not only our building but our people as well.
  2. Our progress is obvious.  The old joke asks, “How do you eat an elephant?”  -- One bite at a time.  We bought a $500,000 elephant with this old building, but we are steadily chipping away.  Paint, chairs, door stoppers, curtains, couches, carpets.  If you pay attention, you can probably see something new each week.  And that describes our people too.  We are growing in faith and mission.  Tribe, Free the Girls, Kairos Outside, World Vision at the Chicago Marathon, and local hospitality and love.  As individuals, people are taking steps of faith and courage and hope to actually live more like Jesus.  It’s beautiful. 
Maybe that progress is the answer to our stuckness.  As we live open and honest lives following Jesus with love for our neighbors, people will find the answers to their biggest questions in our lives and in our community.  May people find answers to their questions in the love and truth they find in us.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"I Have a Confession" - Spoken Word by David Bowden

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Liberating our Families

Chan and Tin worked most of their lives in the rice fields of Thailand.  After working all year on the farm, there was barely enough money to feed the family.  They struggled year after year in desperate poverty.
One day a recruiter for a company called Global Horizons came to their village promising high paying jobs on farms in America.  In one month in America, they could earn what they make in a full year in Thailand.  It was the opportunity of a lifetime to change the lives of their children and their whole extended family.
There was just one catch.  To enter the program, they had to pay a recruitment fee of almost $15,000.  They mortgaged their farms and their houses.  They talked their relatives in to mortgaging their farms and homes.  Tin’s loans ranged up to 80% annual interest, but Chan’s loans reached 152% annual interest.
When they got to the airport, Global Horizons forced them to sign a host of new documents - including a visa renewal fee of $8,000.  When they reached America, the recruiters confiscated their passports “for safekeeping.”  This meant that they had no identification and no way to prove that they were in the USA legally.
At first, there was plenty of work and on-time pay.  After a few months though, the work began to run out and the pay started coming later and later.  Often, they sent 100% of their pay checks back to Thailand so that their families could make the payments on their loans.  That meant they often didn’t have enough to eat, so they caught wild animals for food and gathered wild vegetables from forests.  They usually lived in overcrowded housing without enough beds for each person.  Sometimes the toilet wouldn’t work for weeks at a time.  They often lacked kitchens, washing machines, and sufficient heating. To limit their contact with outsiders, their handlers told them that Americans are greatly prejudiced against Asians and that leaving their housing grounds would be very dangerous.  
Surely this couldn’t really happen in today’s world, right?  They are free people.  They could just change companies, right?  Wrong.  Global Horizons was their legal sponsor and guarantor.  If they quit, they would lose their visas and be sent home to Thailand ... and their families would lose everything.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jesus' Draft Pick (A Skit for Youth)

Scenario: It’s Jesus’ pick in the NBA Draft.  Instead of choosing one of the biggest, strongest, fastest players, Jesus drafts someone extremely unlikely.   (For a fun satire of Jesus as an NBA player, check it out in The Onion.)  

Main Point: Jesus sees great potential where others see nothing.

  • Jesus - General manager and coach of the Chicago Bulls (or other NBA franchise).
  • Commissioner - NBA Commissioner, dressed in a suit and tie.
  • Mick Mickelson - Sports Reporter dressed sloppily with pen and notepad, maybe a tape recorder. (This character should be either very small or rather rotund)

Commissioner:  Congratulations to the Houston Rockets for their exceptional choice of the 6 foot 10 forward from UCLA, Jerome Montablo.  Next up for the 21st pick in the first round of the 2013 NBA Draft, we have Jesus making the choice for the Chicago Bulls.

[Jesus joins the Commissioner at the podium.]

Commissioner:  Jesus, welcome to the NBA.  Let me tell you, we are all excited to see your first draft pick as General Manager and Head Coach.  After your exceptional career as an athlete yourself, the world is waiting and watching to see if you can transfer that success to young players.

Jesus:  Thank you Commissioner.  I’m glad to be here.  I’ve had my eye on this young player for quite some time.  I think he has tremendous potential.  Of course, like all rookies, he has a ways to grow, but I think he will eventually accomplish even more than me.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Beyond NOT-Living

Yesterday, while Greg (my senior pastor, boss, supervisor, head honcho dude) was preaching about Deuteronomy 6 and how God was retraining the Hebrew people to be something more than freed slaves, God started working in me and a blog was being born.
The people of Israel were primarily concerned with being NOT-slaves.  They were done with Egypt (mostly, usually, except when things got really bad).  Their primary concern with leaving Egypt was not being slaves anymore.  However, they didn't really have a positive understanding of who or what they were supposed to become.  They certainly didn't believe that they could march into an occupied land, do battle, take over, and establish a new nation.  (The ethical debate of social conquest is duly noted, but let's set it aside for now.)
God was asking Israel to be something far beyond NOT-slaves.  God was calling them into being God's representatives in the world, God's agents for blessing all peoples.  God was forging them into a new nation that should function as the embodiment of God's purposes and desires for humanity.  They were God's children, God's family, God's special possession, a holy nation, a royal priesthood.  That is infinitely more than NOT-slaves.

Today, we Christians (and a whole lot of other folks as well) often define ourselves by what we are not.  We live NOT-lives.  We are NOT-heathens, NOT-immoral, NOT-liberal, NOT-gay, NOT-pro-choice, NOT-whatever, NOT-too-many-things.
But God is calling us far beyond NOT-living and NOT-theology.  God is calling us to be holistically good representatives of his love and grace in our world.  God is calling us far beyond resisting the bad into creatively and persistently celebrating and causing the good.  Live primarily FOR the good, not against the bad.  That is the live into which God calls us.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Difficulty of a Christian Response to Syria

The "red line" has been crossed.  Probably more than once.  Innocent children are dying.
What should we do about Syria?  The country is imploding.  Assad's venom is spilling helter-skelter into the streets.  How should we respond?  
We have the power to stop the killing - for now.  We - as in the USA, my home country - could bomb Syria's government out of power, probably.  We could send in an army to displace him and to set up a new leadership.  Or, we could "punish" the use of chemical weapons through "targeted" airstrikes.  

The problem - as if there is only one problem - is that none of this may work.  We could intervene militaristically and hit all our "targets" and yet leave Syria in a worse place.  Even unseating Assad offers no hope of a better Syria.  The opposition is fractured and often aligned with militant Islam.  As we've seen in Iraq, removing a dictator often leads to chaos.  
The other problem is that the global community is not unified in how to respond.  The rules of the United Nations require a resolution from the UN Security Council before one nation can "legally" take military action within the borders of another nation.  Russia and China are likely to block any resolutions to this effect for Syria because they could very well be in the same boat as Syria in a decade or two.  Therefore, any military action would be strictly speaking "illegal" and against international norms, not to mention without the support or approval of most of the world.  Hence, America would look like the cowboy aggressor once again asserting their (im)moral dominance in the world.  
The other, other problem.  Violence begets violence.  Bombing Syria at this point would provide infinite fodder for the recruitment of future terrorists.  These terrorists would flourish in the Middle East, but they would naturally spread to other corners of the globe.  As Israel has proven relentlessly (and Boston more recently), no amount of military might can protect a people from a man with a backpack full of explosives.  
Thus we get to the other, other, other problem.  Doing nothing is equally distasteful.  Do we just sit idly by while children are gassed?  How many dead children does it take to merit crushing the murderer?  Is it morally wrong to stand on the sidelines of genocide wagging our fingers in moral outrage?  Is it enough to offer aid to the victims while doing nothing material to stop the atrocities?  This is the old question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced in Nazi Germany.  When a madman is driving a car down a pedestrian filled street mowing down innocent people, at what point is the wise and godly choice simply to shoot the driver?

King and Gandhi (and perhaps Jesus) would tell us that we should flood Syria with innocent protestors, that we should simply line up before Assad's tanks and cannons until Assad and his army became so disgusted with killing us that they laid down their arms and sought a solution for peace and justice.  Perhaps this really is the call of Jesus to lay down our lives for others.  However, it is so dramatic and so radical that I don't hear anyone advocating this - not even my most pacifistic preacher friends.  Moral finger wagging is worse than pointless.  Assisting the victims is admirable, but at what point do we stop the ones committing the atrocities?  
Personally, I am not a militarist hawk.  We have caused great harm in the world by over-using our military strength.  But I'm also not a passive pacifist.  Moral outrage without weighty action is a farce.  But let's not be simplistic.  The only option for a true pacifist here is martyrdom.  However, I do not feel called to walk into Syria to be a martyr nor to ask others to do this.  Perhaps I have a lack of faith.  Perhaps I do not want to understand Jesus' calling on this issue.  I honestly don't know.

So what do we do about Syria?  The problem is that there are so many problems.  Every option is bad.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Putting Baby to Sleep

My friend Ron asked for advice on how to help their infant sleep better.  Here are a few of my thoughts.

We tried not to stress too much about making our kids sleep through the night.  Here are a few things we tried with moderate off-and-on success, and that seems to be about the best results out there.  Anyone who argues with that is probably just lucky or trying to sell something.  Every kid is different.  Our daughter slept WAY better than our son.  At two, he still gets up once about half the time now.
  • Take it slow.  Go for incremental changes.  Do whatever she likes best, minus a half step that makes it easier on you.  And slowly ease back.  For example, you might try laying down with her on the floor or on a twin bed, and then getting up (and packing pillows around to protect her from rolling off if you're on the bed).  That way she gets to fall asleep with you, but you don't have to stay there all night.
  • Try putting her down in a car seat or stroller.  Our son was a bear to get to sleep from about 3 months to 9 months.  Often, I would take him on late night walks in the stroller.  As a newborn, Our girl actually slept way better in her car seat.  We would just put that in her crib or on the floor in her room and strap her down.  I guess she felt secure, or maybe she didn't wake herself up by flailing around.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Writing Class Philosophies

I'm teaching writing this fall at Olivet Nazarene University.  Here are the basic philosophies I'll be working with.

  1. Writing is a critical form of self-expression.
  2. Writing is critical for self-knowledge.
  3. Writing is meant to be read.  Therefore, we will often share our writings in small groups and with the class.
  4. The world needs your voice.  We all have a voice.  We come from different places, different backgrounds, and different schools.  That diversity increases the importance of individual voices.
  5. We can all grow as writers.  We all have different strengths and weaknesses.  But we can all improve our skill as writers.  
  6. Writing flourishes in an environment of acceptance, encouragement, and challenge.
  7. Learning is fun, and fun facilitates learning.
  8. Learning is hard work.
  9. Writing grows through practice.  We’ll spend a lot of time in class practicing our writing.  This is not busy work.  This is practice to improve our skill at writing.
  10. Writing is increasingly important in our world.  Contrary to popular opinion, social media makes writing MORE important not less important.  Emails, tweets, posts, and blogs are increasingly common.
Help me out.  Share your thoughts and feedback on this before class starts.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How to Be a Superhero

Ephesians 6:10-18

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

A few weeks ago Pastor Greg talked about how lots of movies try to destroy the world.   In most of these movies usually a hero or superhero steps up to save the day. 
What’s going on?  Why do we keep telling stories about destroying and saving the world?
Even if we don’t define it in spiritual terms, we know that there is a battle of good versus evil in our world.  We know that we are part of this battle.   Somehow, deep inside, we know that there are forces of darkness and evil in this world that are stronger than us, bigger than us. 
We know that we need help from someone bigger, someone stronger, someone more awesome than we could ever be.  We know we need a hero.  And so we have a whole genre of fiction and movies with superheroes.  
Today, as we continue our Family Movie Series in the month of August, we’re looking at the movie THE AVENGERS.  

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry

This epic tale of the West won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986.  It is a sweeping drama of rugged western life, human ambition, injustice, poverty, struggle, redemption, love, joy, and relationships.  All of this heavy material is joyfully lightened by the outstanding wit McMurtry wields through the wry main character: Gus McCrae.
Two retired Texas Rangers decide to form the first cattle ranch in Montana.  The novel is the story of their journey northward and all the people this journey involves.  McMurtry beautifully sidesteps the plot to develop each main character's backstory in full-chapter flashbacks.  This rich character development weaves a thick fabric of intense human drama for the subsequent plot developments.

At first I thought the theme was the ultimate poison of ambition.  As in: ambition will destroy everyone around it.
Then, it had no theme.  I thought it was simply an outstanding story depicting the beauty, danger, and difficulty of the old American west and the humans who lived there.
Finally, today, with some help from wikipedia, I picked up on what I think is the true theme, cleverly disguised in a mangled latin phrase on an old wooden sign in the story: "We are changed by the lives around us."  For the many, many intriguing characters who inhabit this story, life has surprising ways of wrapping back around on itself.  Our actions influence those around us.  Our stories intertwine.  Both our good choices and our bad choices make a difference for those we love, and even for those we barely know.
That's a message worth a good story, and all the better if the story itself is exceptional.  At some point, I want to go back and watch the TV miniseries again, too.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Appeal - By John Grisham

Grisham tackles corporate greed and malfeasance once again.  This time, Grisham adds the extra complication of political corruption and misuse of the American democratic process.
Krane Chemical dumped horrendous amounts of chemical byproducts into its back 40, and the result was the transition of Carey County into "Cancer County."  A small local firm nearly went bankrupt fighting the big corporate boys, but justice was served with a $41,000,000 verdict.
However, a few back room meetings birthed a plan to "deal with" that troubling verdict by electing a "friendly" Mississippi Supreme Court judge.  The conservative judge is pure as snow, but he is frighteningly naive in his conservative Christian battle against liberalism and all its ills.  He has no idea that he is but a pawn in a larger scheme to save a big business from a well-deserved bankruptcy (which would surely follow from the other lawsuits and settlements).
Grisham scores a few moral victories with this book.
First, his obvious point is that corporate greed must be checked for the good of a vulnerable humanity, and this check often necessarily comes through huge punitive verdicts.  Without massive punishments for corporate wrong doing, there is almost no financial incentive for greedy corporations to correct (much less to prevent) wrongs.
Second, Grisham really gets deep into the moral complexities of justice.  Churches take both sides of this issue.  Some churches are blindly rallied to fight for the "moral" issues of anti-homosexuality and punishment of criminals (all the while dumbly acting as pawns in the larger political machine to elect the corporate boy).  On the other hand, a few churches fight injustice on the side of the poor.
So although the plot is a bit too predictable, this same plot forces us into the midst of ethical questioning.  Grisham makes us question why we stand where we do, why we support certain candidates, and what is really going on behind the scenes of our political landscape.  Any time a novel can do that - and tell a good story - I consider that a success.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Revolution: The Story of the Early Church 30-47 AD - by Gene Edwards

I'm still not sure what I think about this book.
It came recommended by some of the 3DM leaders.  It's a narrative account of the beginning of Christianity - up to the sending of Barnabas and Paul - which Gene Edwards reckons to be 17 years in time.
And that is one of my biggest questions with the book.  How does he get his figures?  He estimates huge time lapses in the book of Acts, much longer than any estimates I've read anywhere else.  Yet, he gives no supporting evidence - arrgg.
On the positive side, Edwards hammers home several points worth emphasizing.
Leadership and spiritual depth take time to develop.  In the modern western world, we tend to hurry our leaders along and expect instant results.  It seems that the ancient Hebrew-Christians were much more content to allow a significant incubation period.  This has the ring of authentic health and wholeness.
"Church-life" is critical to healthy Christianity, but please, please do not confuse this with 21st century churches.  The "church-life" of the early Church was a deep, raw, generous, honest, Spirit-filled community of believers who spoke the truth in love and shared freely with all who had need.  It is the absolute best of all the various forms of community we have experienced.  According to Edwards, without this authentic "church-life" almost nothing of value can happen in Christianity - especially not the formation of genuinely called and equipped leaders.
The leadership of the Spirit is far more important than the best leadership of humans.  The Church started and grew in unexpected ways and at unexpected times.  If humans planned it, the process would have been far more logical and far less successful.
Another, radically challenging bit was an insight right in the first chapter that Jesus was probably resurrected at the same time as the priest celebrated the "first fruits" ceremony in the Jerusalem temple.  If this is true, that is a profound insight, especially since Jesus is called "the first fruits from the dead" ( 1 Corinthians 15:20).

On the downside, Edwards tends to overstate his case (true to form for all radical reformers).  In the midst of his semi-fictional narrative of the early church, he makes radical statements about the 21st century church.  We have NO true apostles.  We have NO true "church-life" happening anywhere.  Etc, etc.
Edwards piques my interest.  I'm not sure I buy everything he's saying, but he's challenging my ideas of the timeframes and procedures of the early church.  I'd like to know his sources, and I need to spend more time thinking on his ideas.  But I'm interested, and I guess that counts as a success for him at this point.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Georgia O'Keeffe - Review

Wandering through the library, I stumbled into the oversized section.  When I discovered Georgia O'Keeffe's self-authored description of her own work, I jumped.  In addition to holding gorgeous prints of her own work, this massive (14x10) work offers beautiful insights into the process of art.
A few comments stand out in my memory.
  • After a decade of art training, O'Keeffe decided that she would have to completely breakaway from the art her teachers valued.  Their training had been valuable for the skills - fluency in the vocabulary and grammar of art (paints, brushes, strokes, chalks, etc).  However, to create the art she envisioned in her head, she would have to return to a blank slate and start anew because her teachers' art was encrusted within stale systems within which she didn't fit.
  • She decided to paint huge portraits of single flowers so that people would slow down and actually look at the details of the flowers.  She realized that if she painted the flowers in life-size, a dozen in one frame, then people would simply glance past them just as they normally do.  However, if she magnified a single bud, then people would see the magnificent beauty hidden in plain sight within the details.  My only complaint is that the book had precious few of the these gorgeously magnified flowers.
  • Sometimes, she would only paint one corner of a building, and she felt that by focusing our attention on that particular corner in great detail, she was able to give the viewer a truer sense of the building as a whole.  I see all kinds of parallels here in the world of narrative, in which I usually operate.
This would make a great coffee-table book, but even if one doesn't want to own a copy, it's well worth the trip to the local library.  Looking for a while through O'Keeffe's glasses will enhance your own lenses through which you see our world.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Calico Joe - John Grisham

Grisham takes a rare tour outside the legal genre to explore sin and forgiveness, brokenness and redemption within the lens of Major League Baseball.
Calico Joe is a blazing rookie for the Chicago Cubs.  He homers in his first three major league at bats and barely slows down for the next 60 games.
Most of America is ready to admit him to the Hall of Fame before he completes his rookie year.  His hometown, Calico Rock, Arkansas is over the moon in pride and joy for their favorite son.  (By the way, my grandparents lived 20 miles from Calico Rock, so I really enjoyed recognizing the local geography and culture.)
Then, Warren Tracy, a bitter and aging pitcher, mows down Calico Joe with a fastball to the temple.  Joe spends weeks in the hospital and never returns to baseball.
The second third of the book is the somewhat predictable, but no less gratifying story of a wounded sinner trying to make peace with his past.  Spurred on death and his mediating son, Tracy sits down with Joe for a reconciliation.
The plot is not profound.  The characters are not particularly deep.  The story is not suspenseful.   But it is enjoyable and even edifying.  Our actions have consequences.  But even our worst mistakes can experience a measure of healing and redemption.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Surprised by Joy - CS Lewis

When our family was eating at Sarah's uncle's house, I saw this book on the shelf.  C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, and one of my goals is to read everything he has written.   Surprised by Joy is Lewis's story of his un-conversion as an adolescent leaving the Christian faith and his eventual re-coversion as an adult.
Lewis beautifully connects his deep inner longings for joy and wonder with his innate human longing for God and Spirit.  His awe for nature, narrative, and fantasy had the same roots as his longings for God and nourished by the same Spirit.  Eventually, Lewis is able to connect the dots between his inner longing and the God who fulfills that longing.
Although the story starts slowly, it becomes quite captivating about a third of the way into the book.  The theological complexity and depth steadily increases until toward the end, nearly every paragraph deserves highlighting.
Well worth reading, and rereading.
Thanks Uncle Steve.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Guarding Good Marriage (Malachi 2:10-16)

Today, we’re continuing our series through the book of Malachi, and today our text is about marriage and divorce.  I want to start this conversation with two stories from my own family.  

My Grandpa Broward was an extremely gifted man, but not a good man.  
As a young man, he directed “Broward’s Little Symphony,” which had a regular slot on the radio.  If any of his musicians didn’t show up, he simply played their instrument for the night.  Clarinet, cello, trombone, whatever - he could play them all.
As an old man, he ran a repair business for appliances and musical instruments.  He could fix anything, but refrigerators and violins were his specialty.  
But Grandpa was also an alcoholic womanizer.  He had at least 9 children, that we know of, but we suspect more.  He was a pretty nice guy when he was sober, but he was a mean drunk.   
[From this point forward several of the facts have been corrected by my Aunt Judy, so they are a bit different from what I shared in the spoken sermon.]
A few of his darkest moments were when my grandma was in the hospital for surgeries, he brought home their cleaning woman for an affair right in front of the children.  
Although Grandma moved out and filed for divorce several times, she always reunited with Grandpa until my dad came home from basic training in the army.  My dad told my grandpa that if he ever hit my grandma again, he would kill him.  I think everyone in the family believed my dad would actually do it, so to protect my dad from killing his own father, my grandma finally went through with the divorce.   That was what you might call a “good” divorce.  It was unquestionably the right decision.
Years later, Grandma’s kids started becoming Christians, with the help of Chic Shaver, a local Nazarene pastor.  Then, they began working on Grandma.  They had almost convinced Grandma to give her life to Jesus, when Grandma asked, “If I become a Christian, can I join your church?”

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What the Bible says about CANCER

1. God hates cancer.  
Jesus taught us to pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).  Revelation tells us that in heaven, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (21:4).  God is on our side in the fight against cancer, and one day, God will win.

2. God suffers with us.  Isaiah 63:9, “In all their suffering he also suffered.”  Like a parent hurting with a child, God is right there with us, crying right along with us.  

3. God can use anything.  
I’m not saying that God causes cancer, but God can definitely use anything - even hurtful things - for good.  God can redeem pain for healing.  Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”  Sometimes the most important lessons are the most painful.  Sometimes the most important life changes emerge from the pit of suffering.  Even in the midst of great loss, we can always ask, “God, what do you want to teach me through this?”  

4. God is not threatened by our pain, doubts, or anger.  
As you grieve, read through the Psalms.  Learn from the lament psalms.  It’s OK to complain to God.  It is good to shout at God if you feel like shouting.  It is OK to question God’s goodness.  God can handle it, and if you don’t express it, it will eat you up inside.

5. God is bigger than our pain.
When we lose a loved one, that pain can block out the sun.  The pain of loss can be all consuming, a black hole sucking us down.  It’s OK to feel the pain.  It’s OK to feel like you can’t go on.  But in the midst of the pain and the storm and the feelings of drowning in despair, hold on to God.  God also lost a loved one - a son.  Jesus died an extremely painful death at an early age, so God knows that pain.  But God’s mighty power also raised Jesus from the dead and began the redemption of all suffering.  I don’t know why evil and suffering are in the world, but I know that good wins.  I know that God wins.  No matter how bad the pain, remember that God’s good love is greater still.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

3 Year Old Drum Prodigy at KNU International English Church

Check out this awesome little guy from my former church.  SBS, a Korean station, just did a short documentary on Kim Shin-Hyuk, the son of KNU International English Church's worship pastor (and her bass-playing husband).  Shin-Hyuk is 45 months old (so 3 and a half), but he already plays drums better than most high school drum students.
When he visited his grandfather in the USA at the age of 2, a trip to Toys-R-Us netted Shin-Hyuk a toy drum set.  He has played it almost constantly for the past two years.

Also, for any of my US peeps, this video gives a little peek of our church and worship space in Korea. Seeing my old church family warms my heart, and makes me a little homesick - because, yes, Korea is now part of my home.

And yes, he does play every Sunday after the worship service.  And yes, he does cry almost every Sunday when his mom finally drags him away from the drums.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Summons - Book Review

Carrying three million dollars in your trunk can be stressful.
Summoned to his father's deathbed, Ray Atlee discovers a dark little secret for his father - a retired judge.  Stuffed away in cardboard stationary boxes are piles and piles of hundred dollar bills.
How did it get there?  Where did it come from?  Who does it belong to?  Who are these people who want it back?
Complicating everything is that Ray's brother and co-inheritor is a life-long drug addict.  Giving him a small fortune would be like handing him a grenade with no pin.
Grisham manages to string us along in suspense as the action picks up.  Meanwhile he is teaching us lessons about greed, the addictive power of money, the essential impotence of money to make us happy, and yet the power of money when used as a tool for healing.  In the midst of immense family brokenness, Grisham even manages to work in some surprising hope and hints of reconciliation.
Also, Grisham takes us back to Clanton, Mississippi, where several of his novels are based, and reintroduces us to one of his more colorful supporting characters, Harry Rex Vonner, a good friend, who is also an alcoholic womanizer.  Ah, Grisham, thanks for the complexity.
And thanks Emma for another good Father's Day gift.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Rainmaker - Review

Our church garage sale had two John Grisham books I hadn't read, so I tipped Sarah off.  Emma gave them to me for Fathers Day.  Score.
Rainmaker picks up on several common Grisham themes - injustice, underdogs, corporate wrongdoing, and ultimately dissatisfaction with money.  
The premise is simple.  Donny Ray had medical insurance, but when he needed a bone marrow transplant, his insurers unfairly denied his claim.  However, his parents were so poor and uneducated that they simply fought the insurance company with letters and phone calls, until it was too late.  When Donny Ray lay on his deathbed, they stumbled into contact with a young law student who took their case.  Against all odds, and with some very fortunate help from others, Rudy Baylor took down one of America's largest insurance companies and exposed their widespread fraud.
What I love about Grisham is that he tells a story with a point, or in this case multiple points.  1) Beware of corporate greed and abuse.  Not every big business is a good business.  2) Beware of greed - from within.  Riches may not be worth the sacrifices required to get them (or to keep them).  
Thanks for another good one, Mr. Grisham.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Nazarenes and Inerrancy (David Brush)

My friend David Brush was asked to reflect on the Church of the Nazarene's recent decision to maintain a middle-ground stance on Biblical inspiration as  a guest post on a big evangelical blog (Patheos, hosted by Scott McKnight).

Within the evangelical protestant movement there is a pull to increase the contrast within our articles of faith (statements of belief) so that there is little room left for nuance along the edges. In most protestant and evangelical denominations there is a clearly defined article regarding scripture, and specifically the inerrancy of scripture. The fervor over these kinds of clearly bounded definitions is continuing to rise as conservative and fundamentalist ideals react to the loss of influence in the western cultural arena. The struggle and contention within the protestant mind, and regarding the inerrancy of scripture specifically, is in how we qualify the word inerrant.
In 2009 a group put forward a resolution at the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene that would alter their article of faith by changing the statement on inerrancy from, “inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation,” to, “inerrant throughout, and the supreme authority on everything the Scriptures teach.” The assembly referred the motion for change to the scripture study committee in order to provide a response and recommendation at the 2013 assembly of the denomination. The committee released the report and recommendation ahead of the June 2013 assembly. In the report the committee recommended that the article of faith on Holy Scripture remain unchanged, and in it they also responded specifically to why it should remain so.