Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Mall and Academic Conferences

A funny thing happened today. I went to the mall.
Now you may be wondering why that is funny or strange. My family would likely tell you that just my being at the mall is unusual. You see, shopping is not on my top ten list of things to do in my free time. I see it as more of a necessary evil than a recreational activity.

No the reason being at the mall today was strange is because for the past five days I have been at an academic conference for folks like me who are involved in studying theology and the Bible.

As I headed into Macy’s today, the juxtaposition of these two events gave me pause.

In the first place, the mall just seemed much more down to earth. It is full of the trappings of Christmas and all of the mundane things that try, as one old hymn puts it, to charm us most. It doesn’t take much thought to walk into the mall, or even to buy something. A few simple questions will do: Does it fit? Do I like it? Do I need it? Do I want it anyway? Is the price-point within my budget?

That about does it. My feet may get tired but my brain does not.

The academic conference, by contrast, takes quite a bit of thought. It’s hardly mundane although at times the questions being asked are fairly ridiculous, at least at first glance. And the answers, well, suffice it to say that several of the theses being proposed needed to be read several times to get at the core of what they were asserting.

But lest I leave you thinking that these two events are entirely unrelated, I should point out some similarities.

Both the mall and the conference feed on folks who are trying to be noticed, albeit for different reasons. People go to the mall to keep up with the latest trends and buy the latest products, be that shoes, some popular brand-name coat, or some other item vying for attention. Ultimately, this is about making sure that you – or your kids – are not wearing WalMart while everyone else is wearing North Face, unless of course WalMart is the in thing. It’s about pride and identity.


Likewise the conference is about keeping up with the latest trends in research and scholarship (clearly not fashion). It’s about vying for the attention of publishers and institutions in order to make sure that your ideas get noticed and therefore, you get noticed. It’s about pride and identity.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that both of these activities are more complex than these brief descriptions suggest. In fact, in some sense, both activities are about identifying with some particular community that one values. And the problem with both is that sometimes in the midst of the mundane or the not so mundane, our identity with our Ultimate Love gets lost.

One of the best parts of the conference was the Sunday worship service. It was a mid-course correction of sorts, reminding the Christians who participated that the danger of pride is always at our doorstep in the academe, that we are called not to be academic stars, but to serve.


I’m not sure what the mall equivalent might be – maybe a flash mob singing the Hallelujah Chorus?? – but somehow, somewhere, maybe on a Sunday morning, I hope we are all reminded that our identities do not lie in  the brand names we plaster on, but in how we use our resources to serve those around us, regardless of what those resources are.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Modern Eugenics

This past Sunday my husband and I were watching the show, 60 Minutes. The story that caught my attention was that of a young couple who had chosen in vitro fertilization not because they have fertility problems, but because they wanted to be able to select an embryo that did not have a particular gene.

It turns out that the woman being interviewed carries a breast cancer gene that can cause a particular aggressive form of breast cancer, a cancer she herself had been diagnosed with at age 27. Although she has recovered, she did not want her children to be faced with that prospect. “Breast cancer will stop with me,” she said.

While her concern is understandable, this practice raises, or should raise, numerous red flags.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am not particularly morally comfortable with in vitro fertilization in any case. But the use of this technology to select for or against particular deficiencies is even more fraught with moral and ethical questions than the general practice itself.

The report suggests that couples – only wealthy couples however, given the cost of the procedure – have the capacity to choose in vitro fertilization in order to design a child that might be more to their liking than whatever the normal means might yield. Are you an older mother who might be worried about Down’s Syndrome? Use in vitro and select only the embryo with a “healthy” genome. Family history of Tay Sach’s, Muscular Dystrophy, or Cystic Fibrosis? No problem.

The report noted that at some point in time, couples could use this technology to select for intelligence, hair color, eye color, physique, or any other characteristic. In fact, one researcher suggested that he predicts the best way forward is to completely disconnect human reproduction from the sex act to ensure the best outcome.

I am wondering how all of this is not simply modern eugenics, the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

But I am also asking the rather obvious question about what this sort of selection says about persons who have these diseases. If an embryo is deemed disposable because of some genetic condition, what might that say about the relative worth and dignity of persons in our communities who have that condition?

From a Christian perspective, is it even true that this sort of selection actually improves humanity? What about the Christian claim of power made perfect in weakness, and the weak in our midst shaming the strong? What do we learn from weakness?

All of this generates a certain level of sadness in me.


But perhaps the greatest sadness I feel has even more to do with the sense that children are more and more becoming commodities to be selected and purchased, rather than gifts to be received with gratitude from the Giver of life, who does not make mistakes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Missional Prayer

Do you ever have one of those moments where you are reading along in a familiar text and suddenly you think, ‘hmmm, I’m not sure I thought much about this before’?

Well, I had one of those moments as I was reading 1 Kings 18 a few days ago. This text is the well-known story of the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. It’s a classic underdog story and one of my favorites. Elijah, the lone prophet of YHWH, is up against 400 prophets of Baal who just happen to be backed by King Ahab and his foreign queen and Baal high-priestess, Jezebel. It’s pretty clear that if Elijah loses this battle, he is in big trouble.

But it is Elijah, at the direction of YHWH, who initiated this. In essence, he challenged the Baal-followers to a duel. If they win, Baal will be acknowledged as God. But if Elijah wins, YHWH will be the God of Israel – which he is anyway, a fact Israel seems to have forgotten.

The bulls are brought. The prophets of Baal sacrifice their bull, place it on the altar. They proceed to pray, dance, shout, cut themselves with knives, and in general, make so much noise that the only way Baal couldn’t hear them is if he was otherwise occupied. Elijah says as much, even suggesting that perhaps Baal is in the bathroom.

Pretty gutsy.

After most of the day has passed and Baal, the god of lighting, has not yet lit the sacrifice with fire, Elijah calls the people of Israel to his side of the mountain. He quietly repairs the altar of YHWH, digs a trench around the altar, sacrifices the bull, lays it on the altar, and has the people pour enough water over the altar to soak the bull, the wood, and fill the trench.

Then Elijah stepped forward and prayed. No screaming.  No shouting. Just a simple prayer. And “the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.”

Now that is a consuming fire!

But the fire is not what caught my attention. It was Elijah’s prayer. In an age where we seemed focused on comfort, on what we want or think we need, all of which might be very good, Elijah’s prayer is quite different.

Elijah doesn’t pray, “O YHWH, save me from this situation.” I think we would all agree that a prayer like that would have been reasonable, given his circumstances. He also doesn’t pray “Please send fire and burn up this bull.” Also a reasonable thing to ask. He also doesn’t pray “Please strike down these false prophets who are leading Israel astray.” I think that might have been reasonable as well.

No, Elijah prays that God will make himself known. “Let it be known today,” Elijah prays, “that you are God in Israel.” Furthermore, the reason Elijah asks God to make himself known is “so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God.”


I wonder how often we think about the answers to our requests as missional. How often do we even pray with that in mind? I know that my own answer to that is ‘not often enough.’ And I wonder how God might work in us if our prayers were focused less on a particular situation, and more on God making himself known as we humbly submit to his will.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Self-Construction

In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson observes that Christian conservatives are finding themselves under increasing cultural stress. This stress is not only coming from outside, but also from inside, primarily from the millennials in their midst.

“Whatever else traditional religious views may entail,” he writes, “they involve a belief that existence comes pre-defined. Purpose is discovered, not exerted. And scripture and institutions – a community of believers extended back in time – are essential to that discovery.” He notes, correctly I think, that this is NOT the spirit of our age.

I might add that this is especially not the spirit of our age in North America. The prevalent North American conception of the self has more in common with Invictus – I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul – than the Christian notion that I am the purposeful creation of a loving God. The consequences of radical self-construction range from a self-promoting me-first attitude that undercuts any notion of community, to abject despair that one’s life is worth anything at all.

Unlike Gerson, I do not think that this mindset affects only the millennials. I think it affects all but perhaps the oldest members of our churches. In fact, I have a hunch that this attitude was caught by the millennials not so much from society, but from their parents, as Christian Smith suggests.

When I think about what it means to be the church in the 21st century, to be a missional church, I wonder whether part of our mission is to help people, maybe especially young people, realize that this pernicious cultural value of self-construction runs counter to everything the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches. In other words, your worth does not come from striving for success, changing styles or attitudes to fit the next cultural expectation of “cool,” or any other form of self-constructed meaning. These will eventually leave you empty and exhausted.

The Gospel teaches grace.

Your worth comes from the fact that God chose to make you, die for you, and save you from every impulse to self-construct. In fact, there is nothing you actually do to make yourself more acceptable to God, to construct yourself in a way that would render you worthy of his love. Rather than a promise of temporal goods that only add to your exhaustion, grace promises rest.


The only thing grace requires is open hands to receive this most precious of gifts.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rural Opportunity

Our congregation is situated in downtown Grand Rapids. The theme for us this year is really a question: What does it mean to be a downtown church? I think it’s a great question and a great theme because it begs us to look beyond our walls to our context and consider how to engage and serve well in that particular context.

Part of that context includes the numerous homeless people, soup kitchens, and shelters that are within blocks of our church. These places are not an unusual feature of the downtown landscape. Most people
realize that urban areas must reckon with poverty and the issues that go along with it. Social justice movements frequently focus on urban areas and these sorts of issues. Likewise, young people and churches interested in social justice also tend to zero in on urban areas or, alternatively, third world countries.

Recently, National Geographic magazine ran an article on hunger in America. One of the “faces of hunger” the article mentions is the working and rural poor. The article notes that this group of people is not the “face” most people tend to think of.  It points out, “as the face of hunger has changed, so has its address.” About ten years ago, the government even replaced the word “hunger” with the term “food insecure” to describe these sorts of households.

Rural and suburban poverty are both similar to and different from urban poverty. Questions about access to health care, food, and transportation, for example, are often more easily addressed in an urban context.

So what does all this have to do with the church?

Everything.

Like many governmental agencies, many denominational agencies focus primarily on urban areas and offer help based on an urban model that it not well suited to the particular needs of rural America. My own denomination has many churches that are situated in suburban and rural areas where these problems tend to be overlooked because they are less visible.

So maybe the question my own church is asking is a question all of our churches should be asking. What does it mean to be a rural/suburban church? How might our rural/suburban church be particularly well situated to serve this newer face of hunger in America? What services can we provide to reach out in Christ’s love to those in need, a demographic that might be harder to identify in rural areas than in urban areas?


Its worth thinking about.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Significance

As I mentioned in my last blog, my husband and I recently returned from a vacation I have dreamed about taking for many years.

You see, I love the wilderness and the unspoiled beauty of God’s world that can be experienced in the wilderness and my husband has grown to love it as well.

So this year, we went back to the place I was born – Northern British Columbia. In fact, we went as far as the southern tip of Alaska.

We are accustomed to hiking in places where we may not see another human being for ½ hour or sometimes even more. But we are not used to driving in places as remote as this area of the North American continent. There were a number of days where we could drive for 20 minutes or even more
never having encountered another car, truck, or other sign of human life.

One of the things I was struck by as we drove and hiked and walked in this remote area, was the vastness of God’s creation. I’m pretty sure the bears outnumbered us. In this northern wilderness, my husband and I were not even dots on a map. Its easy to feel pretty insignificant in a place like that.

And then at night – I wish a picture could capture those nights – the sky filled with stars so bright and close and numerous, I could not help but proclaim in a way similar to the psalmist, ‘who am I that you are mindful of me?’

That sentiment is the central theme of Psalm 8.

Here is what the psalmist writes in verses 3-4:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him,
The son of man that you care for him?

In the parallel set of phrases of verse 4 the psalmist ponders why God cares for us.

Another way to translate the first reference to “man” is “weak creatures.” So we might just as well say, ‘Who are these “weak creatures,” these sons and daughters of Adam – that original, fallen human?’ Why should God single humans out from this vast creation which includes the angels in heaven? Why should he care for us? 

As John Calvin writes in his commentary on this Psalm, “God was under no necessity of choosing men who are but dust and clay.”

Curiously, the psalmist does not answer this question. He simply affirms that God is, in fact, mindful of us and cares for us. Or, slightly more literally, God remembers us and takes account of us.

Out of the whole creation, God remembers us. God remembers you.

You don’t have to be in the wilderness to feel insignificant. Sometimes we feel the most insignificant in a crowded room, or maybe even at church.

At those times, we should read Ps. 8 and remind ourselves that we are remembered. The God who formed the oceans, who pushed up the mountains, and made the vast array of plants, animals, and the stars in the sky has chosen to be mindful of us, of you and of me.

Calvin says we should be astonished, deeply affected and grateful at this miracle.

Indeed!

LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8)

Adapted from a chapel talk given at Calvin Theological Seminary, Aug. 19, 2014.


Monday, August 11, 2014

The Family of God



My husband and I just returned from what for me was the vacation of a lifetime. It was the vacation I had always hoped to take someday and someday finally came. I still feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and its not because of jet lag. This will likely not be the only post associated with this trip.

You see, we went to my birthplace, a little town in northern British Columbia called Houston and along the way, we spent some time in a number of Canadian national parks, and took a side trip to Alaska. My husband said I took him to the middle of nowhere and then went north. That's a fairly accurate description of the location of this little community. It is surrounded by pristine, unspoiled wilderness full of wildlife the likes of which we rarely see, even in U.S. national parks.

I have not been there since I was a child, and yet it was a home-going of sorts. The border agent told me I am Canadian despite my American passport. Fair enough. I was born in Canada.

My parents had asked me to call some friends of theirs in Houston, just to say hello. I did not call all of the people they asked me to but I did call one couple whose four year old son had been my father's first funeral as a young, inexperienced pastor. They invited us for dinner and welcomed us as if we were family telling us to send their love to my parents. She even sent us home with two jars of Huckleberry Apple Jelly!

We walked along the Bulkley River, just down the street from where my first home had been some fifty-plus years ago. I saw the home of our neighbor, whose children were good friends of my older brother and sister. I remembered on a trip back to the area with my parents, my brother and his friend Daniel built a raft out of big inner-tubes and plywood and went floating down the river. It was an adventure Huck Fin could have envied. And I wondered as we walked around if my sister loved the mountains so much because this place was where she lived and ran and played before she lost her sight.

We visited with a friend of mine who I met through a creation care committee we both served on. She and her husband took us on a tour of the backcountry better than anything we could have paid for in the various tourist destinations we stopped in later on our trip. And again, we were welcomed with open arms, as if we were family. They took the time to introduce us to their kids, and one of their siblings who happened to stop by. All seemed glad to have us in their home despite the fact that they had just gotten home from vacation themselves.

So maybe this really was a home-going. For my parents, who often felt called to serve in places that were far from family, the church became family. That was true for us as children as well. We rarely had grandparents or aunts or uncles close by, but we had our church. These people were, and I now realize still are, my family, brothers and sisters in Christ, the family of God. And isn't that at least in part what union with Christ is all about?