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.



Saturday, April 18, 2015

Visions of Slavery on Easter Sunday

My husband and I recently took a vacation that led us through several areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky. Because we both enjoy architecture, we had decided we would tour several antebellum plantations. The way we had our trip organized, the first plantation we visited was Oak Alley just a short drive from New Orleans. As it turned out, our tour of Oak Alley fell on Easter Sunday afternoon.

The house and grounds were beautiful. The tour was informative about the antebellum age. But the most profound part of the day was a self-guided tour through reconstructed slave quarters.

I can’t say I didn’t know about slavery. I had learned about it in school, read about it in books, and even seen movies that depicted it in various powerful ways. But this was different. Standing in front of what would have been a slave duplex, each side of which  was barely bigger than my bedroom at home, and realizing that a dilapidated version of this would have been the home of countless numbers of slaves on whose backs the master’s fortunes were built was sobering, to say the least. And of course the fortunes were clearly represented in the beautiful mansion just a few hundred yards behind us.

Alongside and inside these rugged dwellings were pictures and narrative that described the life of an average slave. Some shacks had rustic beds with primitive mattresses. Some had only a makeshift mattress on the floor. Some had no bed at all. Most had fireplaces for cooking.

The tools the slaves were expected to use to work in the fields were barely stone-age. I don’t really know whether these were the best available at the time, but I got the sense that they were not. Not only were slaves considered nothing more than property, but they were not even given proper tools to do the best work possible.

Two things were especially striking to me that resurrection Sunday. First, the field slaves worked anywhere from 12 to 16 hours every day in miserable conditions. Nonetheless, they often were not given enough provisions to live on. Thus, most had small plots of land as well as a few small farm animals for additional food and income. But here’s the fairly obvious point. After working a long day for the master, they could not come home and rest. Rather, they then had to tend to their own plots and animals. Only after taking care of their own needs were they free to fall into bed.

Second, in the last of the six buildings, there was a book that listed the sale and purchase of human persons – slaves – for the plantation. On one wall in that building the first names of all these slaves were inscribed, row after row of them. It was something like the Viet Nam memorial, but to humans who had never been paid for their work, had been purchased like tools, and frequently treated no better than animals. Is it any wonder that with the Mississippi river within sight, the slaves sang songs like “Deep river, my eyes are over Jordan. Oh don’t you want to go to that gospel feast, the Promised Land”?

On the day we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the liberator of us from our slavery from sin, I received a fuller picture of just exactly how bound I was apart from Christ, what bondage looked like. And in fact, I am while I am no longer bound by sin, I am still affected by it. My vision, like that of the slaves must continue to be forward looking to that “gospel feast” where sin will no longer have an effect on the world, even as I work in the present reality of one called to resurrection life. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Doing Justice With Ex-offenders

Today’s paper continued a series they were running on whether Michigan should have a registry of violent ex-offenders just like the registry of sex offenders. Part of the story focused on a young man who had been convicted of second degree murder. At age 38, almost half of his life had been spent in prison. He was up for parole and hoping to rejoin society. He dreamed of being a husband and father and contributing to his community, dreams not unlike those of most people.

He was released from prison at the discretion of the parole board and a judge. Like so many others, his freedom was short-lived. Six months after his release, he went on a crime spree, robbing a number of gas stations and convenience stores at gunpoint, a gun that turned out to be a BB gun.

What happened?

Without even reading on I knew. I had heard stories like this during my time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola this past January. He simply couldn’t survive on the outside. While he is culpable for his actions, it is hard for me not to wonder what society, especially the church, could have done to help.

It is a fact that persons with a felony record have little chance of finding employment at all, let alone employment that will pay a living wage. Often, ex-offenders end up back in the same neighborhood with the same friends and in the same circumstances that led to the poor decisions that put them in prison in the first place, primarily because they have no other support system.


It’s not that support systems don’t exist. In my city they do. But it’s likely that these folks don’t always know how or where to look for them.

One thing that is clear, is that adding an ex-convicts name to a registry will do nothing but harm. The sex registry is a case in point. Consider this: an 18 year old makes the poor decision to streak at a college football game. He gets arrested and guess what? He is now a registered sex offender in some states. Does that make any sense at all?

And how is something like a crime registry not forcing a person to serve a sentence beyond what the judge demanded? How is this sort of thing just? How is it not reactionary based purely on fear?

Ex-cons are not monsters. They are human beings made in the image of God. How can the church help affirm that?

If perfect love casts out fear, as the Bible teaches, might churches find a way to partner with agencies who are doing good work with ex-offenders to show these people that they are loved? Might we be able to begin thinking creatively about how to offer support to these marginalized men and women, and not promote further marginalization?