Monday, March 21, 2016

Let Everything Praise the Lord

This past weekend my husband and I were treated to a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago thanks to my daughter and her husband. The highlight was the National Parks movie that was playing at the Omnimax theater.

Over the years, our family has visited and camped at many of our National Parks so many of the scenes were familiar to us. We enjoy being outdoors and love the quiet beauty of hiking and camping in the various parks. Although our love for the outdoors began with the mountains, we have come to enjoy the variety of landscapes, wildlife, and vistas that different regions and habitats offer. Personally I would have a very hard time identifying one particular park as my favorite. The swampy Everglades have very little in common with the semi-arid Badlands or the snowy heights of Glacier, but each has its own beauty and wonder.

As the movie began in this museum that celebrates human curiosity and achievement, I quickly recognized the instrumental music as Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. As scenes of parks like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite swept by in this gigantic domed theater, my emotions overwhelmed me. It was as if I was witnessing the words of Psalm 148, a psalm that calls the entire creation to praise the LORD.
 

And this is as it should be. In a setting where it was likely that if they knew the word at all the majority of persons considered ‘hallelujah’ as merely an expression of joy, the creation itself seemed to pick up what those made in the image of the Creator were unable to do saying “praise the LORD.”  On this Palm Sunday weekend, it was as if the very rocks were crying out.



Sunday, February 21, 2016

Cloudy Days

Living in the Northern part of the United States near the west shore of a Great Lake can be rather depressing this time of year. Those inland seas, as they have been called, affect our weather yielding a disproportionate number of cloudy days. Add to that the fact that we are on the west edge of the Eastern time zone, and sometimes it feels like somewhere around early December we descend into darkness until sometime close to May.

My sister’s family lives in Colorado; my brother’s in California. They rarely experience cloudy days. And in the darkness of January and February I often envy them. I don’t envy the weather, mind you. I love four distinct seasons where each moves relatively smoothly from one to the next. But I do envy their sunshine.

The past two days have been those rare but delightful days where the sky was blue and the temperature was spring-like. The first of this two-day run I s delighted. Ah…..sunshine! Yesterday I was nearly giddy. But as I anticipate the cold and clouds returning I couldn’t help remembering spending two weeks in the southwest some years ago.

We were camping, enjoying the vistas that an arid and mountainous climate offer. But sometime after the first week, I found myself getting up in the morning and wishing for clouds. The monotony of the piercingly hot sun, cloudless blue sky, dry dirt, and coniferous trees was beginning to wear on me. As I think back, in some ways the monotony of the dry, hot sun was as bad as the monotony of clouds.

I was reading about Julian of Norwich yesterday in a fascinating new book called Christological Anthropology by Marc Cortez, a theologian at Wheaton College. I have not read her myself but Cortez does a fabulous job outlining her ideas.

One thing that Julian apparently speculates about is the origin of sin. She wonders why God would allow his first creatures to sin and the pristine world to devolve into its current state of misery. She doesn’t really come to a firm answer.

But I wonder along with many others throughout history whether human free agents need to experience misery to fully appreciate glory. If God had not allowed the possibility for sin, could we really have understood the gift a relationship with God offers us?

It’s a little like living in a sunny climate, I think. If you never experience ongoing clouds and darkness, do you really appreciate the sun?



Saturday, January 30, 2016

Mystery

In my profession, and in the academic world more generally, there is nothing that is more important than careful thinking. Clear thinking. Sound thinking. Reason. We like our ideas lined up, put in rows, fit together neatly like a good puzzle. We like systems with ones and zeros that always lead to the same end.

 In fact, if you hang around folks like me long enough you could easily come to the conclusion that there is no greater sin than a refusal or inability to think. A well-reasoned blasphemy may well be more respected than a poorly reasoned statement of faith. After all, aren’t we to love God with our minds?

My own Reformed tradition is perhaps especially plagued by this reasoned snobbery. When Mark Noll published his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, with the conclusion that the scandal was that there was no evangelical mind, many in my circles chortled with laughter, winking and nodding in the agreement that of course, this was something they had known all along and was clearly unfortunate.

Unfortunately, these same people never stopped to consider whether their own emphasis on intellect and reason wasn’t equally problematic. Tim Keller says that an idol is a good thing that has become an ultimate thing. I wonder if that is what has happened in my profession – that we have taken a good thing and made it an ultimate thing.
One of my favorite authors when I was a child and even today is Madeleine L’Engle. She has a wonderful way of pondering, asking questions, and imagining that goes beyond reason. She appreciates mystery and paradox. She isn’t afraid of unanswered questions.

I wonder if L’Engle is closer to the vision of Christian scholarship than most of us involved in it. I wonder if being a Christian scholar isn’t really something like an invitation to study what’s in front of us, whether biology or theology, in a context where mystery and paradox and humility are central categories, not fall-back positions.

In a brief verse about the season of Advent and the incarnation L’Engle writes:
            This is the irrational season
            When love blooms bright and wild.
            Had Mary been filled with reason
            There’d have been no room for the child.


Indeed.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Sermon in a Department Store

Last week my daughter and I were standing at the cosmetic counter at a major department store in the greater Chicago area. The person helping us brought me my mascara and I handed him a coupon that I had received in the mail for a free product. He apologized that he could not accept the coupon because it had expired. No big deal, I told him, as I laughed at myself for not seeing the date.

He then told me, pointing to the huge poster behind him, that the next promotion would be of their new anti-aging product. Was I interested, he wanted to know? It was “guaranteed” to reduce wrinkles. I told him I had actually received a coupon for that product in the mail as well but really was not interested. Given my age, it was a little late to prevent wrinkles, I said, and I really don’t mind looking my age. Besides, I went on, it wasn’t worth the approximately $75 per month it would take to keep up with the stuff once the free sample was gone. No, I said, I would pass.

He smiled kindly at me, and then my daughter spoke.

 “We shouldn’t try to defy age,” she said, “we should celebrate it.” The young man paused. I’m guessing he was surprised. You see, my daughter is a beautiful young woman who tends to catch the eye of any young man within 50 yards of her.

A statement like that coming from someone like her was not what he expected.

She went on. “Age is a gift,” she said. “Not everyone receives that gift. If I am given the gift of age, I want to celebrate it not hide it. The lines around my mouth and the wrinkles by my eyes will remind me of the many times I smiled or laughed at a good joke with friends or family, or of my laughter at the antics of someone I loved, maybe a child. 

My frown lines will remind me of those times I worried about my husband getting home safely or a child’s difficulty in school, or my own struggles in grad school or with friends. The wrinkles on my forehead will remind me of the surprises in my life.”

Like the young man, I was captivated.

As she continued I heard wisdom. Wisdom that many of us don’t figure out until much later in life. Wisdom that marketers ignore and try to override in their youth-driven advertising.


The young man nodded and voiced his agreement. My guess is that in his fairly short life, he had never heard someone suggest that the processes of aging are good. Frankly, I have not heard that message much either. But my daughter is right. Age is a gift. Let’s start celebrating!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Christmas Memories

Today is Epiphany. Advent is officially over and the church moves into the season of Epiphany (or ordinary time depending on who you ask).

Although I have not begun to take down my Christmas decorations yet, it will be, as it is every year, something of a ritual. I will begin with the tree, then the mantel, etc. Somewhere near the end of my yearly practice I will pack up the Christmas cards we received. People used to send them every year but recently, with the coming of FaceBook and other such things, I find that the total cards received continues to diminish.

I miss those real paper hold-in-your-hand cards. I know posting a greeting on Facebook is faster and more efficient, but it also isn’t quite the same as the card and yearly updates we used to receive from most of our friends. They were generally more honest and more comprehensive as well.

One reason I love my cards – and still send them – is that they offer a tangible reminder of our loved ones versus several hundred “likes” on FB. We still make a practice of praying for the family or individual from whom we receive a Christmas card at dinner on the day we receive it. Its hard to do that with the mass of posted photos on FB.

I also save our Christmas cards from one year to the next. As I prepare to send out my own cards for the year, I look through the cards from the previous year. Sometimes, the card I hold is the last card I received from that person because in the intervening year, that person went to be with the Lord. Those cards are the most special to me and I keep them, remembering the person that sent the card each year. I suppose I will keep them for as long as I continue this tradition.


So I have the last Christmas card I received from a good friend, from my sister, from a beloved aunt, to name a few. Facebook greetings just can’t replace that.

In addition, as I put each card into the box where I save them until the next year, I say a prayer for the person once more. I pray that the coming year will indeed be happy for them and their loved ones.


I’m sure it is possible to adapt my practices to social media in some way. But I don’t know how. And maybe this old dog just doesn’t want to learn that new trick. Maybe I will just keep sending old fashioned Christmas cards, made of paper, sent with a stamp. And maybe some folks will keep sending them to me as well.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Thin Place in the Nursing Home

South central Iowa is the home of my people. By that I mean that both my mother and my father were raised there. Although we moved quite often and always lived some distance from the area that they called home, we visited nearly every year. As a result, that area of the country became something like home for me as well.

I looked forward to being back in Iowa most summers. And when we lived in Omaha, we were able to spend Christmas with our relatives as well. I didn’t have many cousins my age, but it didn’t matter. When we visited we were treated like royalty. Many of my uncles and aunts farmed.  For a city kid, doing some simple chores like gathering eggs or ‘helping’ in some other way was a treat. The only thing better was chasing fireflies on hot Iowa nights while the adults talked, and then having an older cousin make a firefly ring for me. If you don’t know what that is, you probably shouldn’t ask.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I had the privilege of being in Iowa again for a wedding. My elderly parents rode with us. He and I would likely make the 7 hour trip with only a quick stop for gas. But my parents needed a little longer break so we stopped for gas and a sit-down meal, joking that we had to “walk the parents.” They thought that was funny too.

Going to Iowa with my parents is fun. They point out landmarks and memories that we would not know to look for. They showed us where my dear Uncle James and Aunt Nelly are buried – a small, out of the way country cemetery. They pointed out where the old school house used to stand near my Grandpa’s farm. In short, they helped me remember things I had long since forgotten.

And that in itself is interesting because my Dad has dementia. There is not much he remembers these days. But he remembered ‘home.’ At least to some extent.

The most precious moment of the trip however was not what I expected. I expected it to be the wedding which was very precious. I couldn’t get through it without tears. But the most precious time was watching my Dad with his brother.

Dad’s brother, Uncle Hank, lives in a nursing home. It is actually a beautiful place. Very clean. Nicely kept. No smells. He is 92 years old and while he is quite deaf, his mind is still fairly sharp, unlike my Dad’s.

My mom had to wake my uncle up from a nap. Perhaps because he was still groggy, or perhaps because he didn’t expect to see my Dad and Mom in Iowa, he did not immediately recognize my Dad. But that was only for a minute. Soon he and Dad were chatting away and Dad looked like Dad before dementia.

The rest of us left them alone to enjoy each other’s company. After about ½ hour, it was time for us to leave. We re-entered the room where they sat and told them it was time to go. My Dad got up and turned to Uncle Hank to say good-bye. Uncle Hank held out his hand to my Dad and tenderly said to his younger brother, “the Lord bless you, Wilbur.” Still holding my uncle’s hand my Dad said, “the Lord bless you too, Hank.”

It was as if the world stopped at that moment. I felt like I had witnessed something that went beyond words. Two old men, both deeply committed Christians, saying good-bye, perhaps realizing that they may not see each other again in the flesh.  And rather than saying good-bye, or even ‘I love you’ – words so often used tritely nowadays – they bless each other.

The Celts speak of ‘thin places,’ places where the veil between heaven and earth becomes penetrable, and one can glimpse of glory of God. That little room in the nursing home on that cold November day was such a place. And I had been blessed to see it.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Re-entry

I have not written for some time. I guess that’s because I have been largely put off by blogs in general. I have wondered whether this is the best way to communicate and wonder aloud about issues related to faith, issues that are at times controversial.

The lack of civility in the blogosphere disturbs me. Dialog cannot happen when our first reaction to any idea other than our own is to attack. I was unwilling to continue to contribute to that culture of attack, in part because I see my own susceptibility to attack first and listen later, and in part because I think there is nothing less Christian than beating up on those whose opinions differ from ours.

Nonetheless, there is also a part of me that loves to ‘think in print.’ It helps me work through my ideas and reach a tentative conclusion. So I am going to try again with some clarifications about how I think.

Civility is important to me. I think it should be important to everyone. I have learned the most about civility from two of my colleagues who participate regularly in ecumenical dialog, specifically the Reformed-Roman Catholic dialogs. So my first re-entry blog is an attempt to describe civility, although excellent books have been written on this topic including Stephen Carter’s book, Civility and Richard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency.

Culture in general seems to think of civility as something like being nice. Christians fall into this same trap. Being nice, for many Christians, is to not make judgments, to not suggest that there is such a thing as truth and that we can know it, at least in part, and to not challenge someone’s belief system. It means that I cannot call something morally right or wrong because that could hurt your feelings and that I also cannot call some particular way of thinking the best interpretation because that would imply that your interpretation is not equally valid. Christian Smith gets a wonderful hold on all of this in his study of religious trends entitled Soul Searching.

Civility as niceness is not civility. True civility means that I have listened carefully to your ideas. I have weighed them based on criteria beyond my own feelings about the matter and I have found them wanting. It is to respect your process of thinking through some particular idea or issue and choosing to disagree with you. In fact, respect for the other as a person who is capable of thinking through issues using the same basic data that I am using is at the heart of civility.

When I respect your ideas, it does not mean I agree with you.Lack of agreement is not the same as attacking. Civility looks for points of commonality with you while remaining convicted that the conclusions I have reached are not substantially mistaken.

From a Christian perspective, particularly where doctrine and morality are concerned, it is not to think alone, but to think in the context of the Christian faith handed down through the ages, presumably guided by the Holy Spirit. It is to think with the church catholic. For more on this see the book Reformed Catholicity. Christian thinking should never be done in isolation or apart from the history of the Spirit’s work in the church.

Civil discourse does not call names, vilify, or point fingers. It simply points out errors in thinking while asserting a different point of view.

The best example of civility that is readily accessible are David Brooks and Mark Shields who are part of the PBS Newshour wrap up on Friday evenings. They stand on opposite sides of the political divide in America, yet dialog with grace and in a way that does not further polarize an issue but informs those watching.

So I will be writing with Brooks and Shields in mind. Daring to put out ideas now and again that oppose someone else, but doing so with a civil tone.