Sunday, January 25, 2015

Freedom in Christ

It was a cold, dreary, rainy day as we walked into the building that housed ‘death row’ at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola, Louisiana. It was almost as if God was weeping over the many human choices that brought this place into existence.

I was at Angola with a colleague and a group of students. We had come to meet some of the men at Angola and learn about how God has been working within the prison walls. Our week to this point had been uplifting; unbelievable in some ways. We had worshipped with three different churches pastored by inmates. We sat in pews with convicted felons – murderers, rapists, violent criminals.

Societal throw-aways.

Human beings made in the image of God.

We had seen how the Holy Spirit has been working in the men of Angola. In this place where most would expect only darkness, we had seen men living as children of light. Grace will do that.

But now we were entering a place where any notion of hope seemed hard to imagine. Death Row. The name was on the front of the building.

85% of prisoners at Angola were serving life sentences without chance of parole. Yet many of them had relative freedom within the prison. No so on Death Row. These men are facing the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes. They spend 23 of 24 hours of each day in their cells under heavy guard. One hour each day they may come out, shackled hand and foot. During this time they may exercise, shower, etc. – all within cages. This is a sad, seemingly hopeless place.

Yet, we were met by an inmate chaplain – Jerome – whose job it is too care for the spiritual needs of these men. I don’t think I have met a more cheerful, positive person. Of course he is a ‘lifer’ as well, although not the sort you find on death row. When we asked what he does with these men in this dark place, he said, “I love them.”


He showed us how he ‘does church’ with the men who are interested. Each man is led out, shackled hand and foot, to one of the ten exercise cages that are situated in a row outside the building. It was cold as we stood there but he said the men don’t care. Once in the cage their chains are removed through a slot in the gate. The men are then free to raise their hands and praise the Lord.

There, Jerome told us, in worship, these men are free. Maybe they know something the church on the outside doesn’t.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fear, Racism, and EIT's

This has been a disheartening couple of months to be an American. In some ways, that is not all bad since many of us have a tendency to idealize our country to the point of idolatry. Nonetheless, there is a lingering sadness in my heart over recent events.

I chose not to weigh in with all the other bloggers on the events of Ferguson, Staten Island, and the problem of justice for people of color. My blog silence was not tacit approval. It simply reflected the fact that most of what needed to be said had been said and I really had nothing more to add. To any observant person, it has been quite clear for some time that our justice system is broken. I didn’t need Ferguson to remind me of that. All I need to do is observe the racial imbalance in conviction rates and prison populations. If any good comes out of Ferguson, it will be the re-opening of these sorts of conversations.

But then came the news from the Senate Intelligence Committee that after 911, the CIA was using “Enhanced Intelligence Techniques” in an effort to obtain intelligence on terrorism. Of course EIT, as those who have read the report affirm, is simply a euphemism for torture. Like John McCain, I would like to believe that America is above this. Clearly not. The fact that the question about whether the information gained was useful or not is irrelevant as far as I am concerned, although many have indicated that intelligence gained from torture is nearly always deeply flawed.

From a Christian perspective, I have been even more disturbed. Although with the racism issue I have seen movement and heard at least some voices, with the torture issue the church has stood silent.

We seem to be willing to speak up when a victim is a friend or acquaintance, or could have been. But when the victim is the frightening “other,” we seem to have much less to say. And here is the crux of the matter.


With both racism and torture, we fear those who we perceive as a threat, whether the person is a threat or not. And fear breeds violence and hatred. The Bible says that perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love is, of course, the love of God, a love that should be reflected in all of those who are united to Christ in faith.

In a fallen world, a certain amount of caution is necessary. But to be pro-life, as I think all Christians should be, is to not fear those who, like us, are made in the image of God. Rather, it is to advocate for those whose inherent dignity and worth as human persons is threatened regardless of who those persons are.

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


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?


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.