Thursday, December 5, 2013

Free Diving, Extreme Sports, and the Sixth Commandment

I don’t watch much TV but this past week I happened to tune in to the weekly news and interest show, 60 Minutes. One of the stories was on a sport called “free diving.” I had not heard of it before and watched with interest, then dismay, and then disgust.

For some time, I have been concerned by the growth in popularity of what are known as extreme sports. The name of this category really says it all. These sports are all about pushing the limits: of the human body, of the environment, of physics – whatever. And the purpose appears to be nothing more than the thrill of a momentary adrenalin rush.

Culturally, I think that these sorts of things are related to the increasing narcissism in North America. In extreme forms narcissism is a psychological disorder. Note the following definition: “a mental disorder characterized by extreme self-absorption, an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and a need for attention and admiration from others.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/narcissism)

According to many cultural analysts, narcissistic behavior characterizes an ever increasing segment of North Americans. In educational circles, dealing with this trend among students is receiving more and more attention.  If you think that this is not a problem among Christians, think again.

So where does free diving fit into all of this?

I think it exemplifies the most extreme of the extreme sports and as such, helps identify the inherent problems, from a Christian perspective, with these sports.

Free diving is the practice of learning to hold one’s breath for an extremely long time (upwards of 4 minutes) while diving to depths of more than 350 feet. There are controls. Most of the professional divers have a team with them to help them if they black out, resuscitate them if necessary, etc. But the bottom line is, this so-called sport can – and does – kill, regularly.

The 60 Minutes piece opened with scenes of a young man who was attempting to beat a previous U.S. record. He made it up but soon after lost consciousness. About an hour later, he was pronounced dead. About two months ago, the wife of a husband-wife diving team also died while attempting a potentially record-setting dive.

The divers shown demonstrating free-diving on the Sunday episode were interesting. The young man did complete his dive, but said that every time he dives he “hears a voice” telling him he is going to die. The young man’s mother is shown crying on the shore while she waits for him to re-surface.

The young woman on the show who also successfully completed her dive is shown kissing her young daughter good-bye before she goes out. Her reason for diving? The feeling she gets when she is down there.

Neither of these people seem to care about anyone’s feelings but their own, however. The young man is apparently oblivious to the stress this causes for the people around him, and the young woman does not seem to recognize that her temporary self-gratification, should it go horribly wrong, will leave her young daughter motherless. The purpose is to break the next record until, apparently, no more records can be broken.

For a non-Christian, perhaps we can excuse this sort of reckless disregard for not only the people around us, but also for the life they have been given. But for a Christian, this is nothing short of a violation of the sixth commandment: you shall not kill, a commandment that the church has always recognized includes the killing of oneself.

If we are to be salt and light in the world, how should the Christian community respond to the growing popularity of extreme sports, sports designed to put one’s life in peril? That’s a tough question to some degree. But blindly accepting what is trendy is not the call of Christian discipleship. Christian discipleship is the polar opposite of the self-gratification we see reflected in the extreme in these sports. Christian discipleship is self-denial for the sake of others and the glory of God.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Deadly Book

This week I, along with many others, read with horror the story of North Korean people who were executed by firing squad for possessing a Bible. It turns out that the Kim regime thinks this book is dangerous, that it could displace Kim-worship with something else and could eventually lead to rebellion.

So, as it was reported, Christians were publicly executed along with other enemies of the Kim regime. More than 10,000 spectators were forced to watch this gruesome event.

Of course, there are many areas of the world where Christians suffer because of their faith. But when I hear a report like this one, I can't help but wonder about our own, rather complacent form of North American Christianity. And I also get just a little more than irate when I hear North American Christians speak about "persecution" as being mocked in the workplace or some other public arena because of their faith.

The fact is, most of us don't have a clue what persecution is. Worse yet, I doubt many in our congregations could bear up under the sort of severe persecution suffered in many parts of the world. 

We don't think twice about owning a Bible. My own family probably has more than 10 Bibles in the house.  And we rarely think about this book, this Word, as subversive. Perhaps because we have so domesticated the stories of God's work in the world that we barely even notice that the call to discipleship is, as Karl Barth wrote, a call to die. But look at the folks we think of as heroes: Abraham, David, Mary, Ruth, Paul, to name a few. Not exactly easy lives. 

Perhaps in the coming weeks as we read our Bibles, let's acknowledge the fact that in many areas of the world, these "wonderful words of life," are also deadly words. And then follow that recognition by praying for the safety and religious freedom of our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Seek the Peace of the City

"Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile." Jer. 29:7

This was part of my morning reading today. So often this verse is used as a call to minister in an urban area. And that may be a fine application. But it seems to me that the command is much broader than that. The "city" in which we exiles is the whole world, not just some particular urban area.

The bible frequently portrays God's people as aliens, wanderers. Peter calls us "strangers and aliens" in this world, a world that Paul tells us we are to be in but not of. God's people are not primarily citizens of this kingdom, but of the heavenly kingdom. We wait not all that patiently for the full manifestation of that kingdom.

But in the meantime, while in exile, we must pray for the peace and prosperity of the world we inhabit, a world groaning under the weight of sin. We must seek the shalom - the well-being - of the world. That means not just our little corner of that world, but the world we never see except in pictures and news broadcasts, a world 1/2 way around the globe.

So what might seeking the shalom of the world look like?

I suppose there a numerous answers to that question, but I will offer just a few possibilities. It means caring for creation. Issues like climate change and our role in it affects not just us, but the whole planet. If our use of fossil fuels contributes, even in a small way, to climate change that causes parts of our world to suffer more drought, storms, and other problems that make crop production and life itself difficult, shouldn't we at least try to figure out what we can do to help?

Seeking the shalom of the world might mean addressing issues of justice and mercy. Ministering to those on the margins - the weak, poor, mentally ill, children, and elderly, to name a few. One does not need to go far to find these people. One need only go to our schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and streets to find folks who have been all but abandoned by their families, and society as a whole.

But most importantly, we need to be passionate about witnessing to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Shalom will never be found through social programs, self-help, or any other human means, regardless of the good these things might do. Shalom can and will only be found in Christ.

For those of my regular readers, I am sorry for the long delay since I wrote last. I have taken on some new responsibilities in the past few months and have not had much time to write. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Life is Hard

It struck me on the way home today, that for so many people life is hard.

I have mentioned before that I ride the bus to and from work. Most people that ride the bus in this city are not even remotely middle class. But today, because I sat toward the back of the bus rather than the front, I noticed this even more.

Many of my fellow travelers have no other means of transportation and use multiple transfers to get from point “a” to point “b.” In other words, a trip to the doctor that would take you or I 15 minutes, could take one of these people 30-40 minutes.

Many work menial jobs. There were four people who had on uniforms from fast food places. There was a pregnant mom trying to manage three children, a stroller, and two bags. Her tone was a little harsh when she directed her little boy to sit down. But I noticed how tired she looked and wondered to myself how far they had already traveled before this ride.

There were little kids, maybe 10 years old, unaccompanied by a parent making their way home from school. Out in the suburbs where I live, any number of parents pick up their children from the bus stop. These little folks get off and head home alone, almost certainly to an empty house. And the house is likely not empty because the parent does not want to be there for their child, but because the parent cannot be there because he or she is at work.

And then I remembered my time in Jakarta last January. And the conditions for some of the people I saw there make the conditions of those on the bus look good.

With all of this in front of me, I thought of the “Occupy Wall Street” people. Certainly Wall Street has its problems, moral and otherwise. But I have a hunch that none of the Occupy people were wondering where their next meal would be coming from nor where they would sleep. My take on that movement was that it was not about having basic needs met, but about not having wants met. And the distance between needs and wants is huge.

Bringing this a little closer to home, I realize that most of the difficulties I have faced in life, are difficulties that impacted my perceived happiness – issues of “want” not “need.” Sure, there are any number of things I wish could be different. And I can think of sets of circumstances where I would be happier (although one never really knows if that would be the case). But the sorts of ongoing, daily difficulties that my fellow travelers face have rarely, if ever crossed my radar screen.

But the truth I was reminded of on the bus today is that for the vast majority of people in the world, life is hard. The corresponding truth is that I must be grateful to God for the gifts he has entrusted to me, and that love for those who have been given less is the practical outworking of that gratitude.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I want to begin by telling you that I love the church, and I love my church. I love the people first of all.  And I love our pastors, especially our new pastor of preaching.

I also love the way our particular church has chosen to worship. Our liturgy, our music, even the worship space draws us to reflect on our Triune God, the only Holy One. Indeed, the formality of our worship is one of the things that drew my husband and I to our current church.

But today something happened that made me wonder if sometimes, our formality overwhelms opportunity. Let me explain.

We worship in a downtown, urban area. There are several homeless shelters within a block or two of our building. As a congregation, we are involved in any number of ministries that assist this needy population and it is not uncommon for some of our needy neighbors to worship with us on Sunday morning.

Within minutes of the beginning of the sermon, a woman, obviously from the neighborhood, walked up the center aisle, bag and all, and sat in the second bench from the front. Her hair was rather messy, her bag was full of who knows what, and she was dressed in jeans – not typical apparel at our church. She sat there for a few minutes, then she got up, and walked out without saying a word, just as she had walked in a few minutes earlier.

A couple of minutes later, she walked back up the center aisle, back to the second bench. All of this happened in front of us: the congregation, the choir, and the pastors.

But no one said or did anything.

Not a word of kindness. Not a gesture of love. Not a question about what she might be seeking. Not even an offer to pray for her, although I would suspect many, like me, were doing exactly that. No one even got up and sat next to her. Me included.

A few minutes late, she got up and walked out again.

Unbeknownst to me, one of our pastors and several of our members did attend to her in the back of church. I was very happy about that.

But I couldn’t help but wonder, especially in the middle of a sermon on the church as family and unconditional love for others, whether the real sermon was not the one being preached, but the potential sermon sitting in our second row. And despite the help we offered, I still can’t help but wonder whether a sermon acted out wouldn’t have been more effective than the spoken words we heard today.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


I do not really like the shorter days of fall. It is dark when my alarm goes off in the morning these days, making it all that much harder to wake up. When I drive to the bus or all the way in to work, I have to use my headlights. Admittedly, that's not a big deal, but it seems that just as I am getting used to bright, sunlit mornings, we dive back into gloomy darkness.

But today was different.

I drive east to get to work and this morning the sun was just peeking over the horizon as I left my neighborhood. The horizon was clear, but at just about the three o'clock mark above the horizon and stretching to about the 1 o'clock point behind my car there was a thin, bumpy layer of clouds. These clouds made for a near perfect refraction of the light coming from the rising sun.

Have you ever sat and watched the remnants of a campfire when all the wood has burned down and you are left with glowing embers? The embers glow reddish-orange with tinges of blue around the edges. Now pick up that mind-picture and put it up on the sky. Throw on a little bright pink everywhere for good measure and you have some idea of what the sunrise looked like this morning. I wish I could have taken a picture so you could see it. Of course a picture never does such things justice.

I often ride with my radio off but this morning, I had a CD of praise music in. I turned it off. It seemed to me that the heavens were doing all the praise that was necessary. Indeed, the heavens were declaring the glory of God, the skies were proclaiming the work of his hands (Ps. 19). 

Psalm 148 calls for the sun and the moon to praise God and for all God's saints to join in that praise. And that was exactly what happened this morning. I praised God with and through the sunrise.

And if I had woken up in light, as I did all summer long, I would have missed the glory.

Friday, August 30, 2013


My best friend, who I’ve known since college days, called me the other day. She was very upset and asked me to pray. Their son, David, had run away from home.

David is 17. He was severely neglected in his birth home until the age of 4, when he was placed in foster care with my friend’s family. They adopted him as their own a year later. The effects of the sort of severe neglect David suffered have colored his life however, making it difficult to form relationships, and difficult to navigate life in a socially appropriate way. Despite this he is very bright.

No one really knows why David ran away. He was in a loving environment with parents and siblings who loved him. My friend’s family is quite well-off, so David also had all the comforts and benefits money affords, including all the medical and psychological help available. But while they were vacationing on the other side of the mountains, he emptied his bank account, bought a new phone, and simply disappeared. After desperately searching for several days, they finally packed up and went home – without David.

It has been nearly a week and there is still no word from him. The police have offered very little assistance – this is a runaway, not a kidnapping.

Because of David’s lack of social abilities and some of his other difficulties, my friend is unsure if he can survive alone, and if he needed help, whether he would know how to get it or be willing to ask for it.

In the middle of all of this my friend and her family are in agony. The kind of heart-rending agony that only deep love can cause.

As I have been thinking about and praying for David and his family, it has occurred to me that David’s relationship  to his family is not entirely unlike our relationship to God. God reaches out to his people and graciously plucks them out of a situation not unlike David’s. (Ez. 16:1-14) He adopts us in Christ, as his own children and offers us all the benefits of that relationship. Yet like David, we are prone to wander, prone to think that we know better than God, prone to think our way is best.

 Despite all of this, Luke pictures God in much the same way I see my friend and her family. Despite our rebellion and stupidity, God is searching for us (Luke 15:1-10), scanning the horizon, waiting for us to come to our senses (Luke 15:11-32) and recognize that the yoke of serving Christ will always be lighter than the supposed freedom of the world around us. The responsibilities and obligations of being adopted children will always be outweighed by the benefits.

For those of you who happen to read this post, will you please pray for David’s safe return and for the peace of God’s presence for his family.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dementia and the Church

I am reading a book that explores dementia. The book is entitled Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. It is really a book that falls under the heading of practical theology and pastoral care. I am a systematic theologian (which by the way is also practical) so what does this book have to do with me?

This is a very personal issue for me because my father has dementia. And as it turns out, this is also a very theological issue because the book has at its core ideas about what it means to be a human person and how we, as Christians, may have allowed science and the medical community as a whole dictate the answer to this question more than is warranted.

With nearly every page I am struck in some way by how the community, including the Christian community, speaks about people with various forms of dementia. And it has long been recognized that how we speak about someone or something influences how we think about that person or thing. For example, if we refer to a person as a patient, we understand and react to that person in ways that we would not if we had not classified the person in exactly that way.

And so it is with dementia. We approach the person with dementia with a certain set of presuppositions about what a person with dementia is like, what she can or cannot do, what she will or will not remember. While assigning a label can be helpful in certain ways, it can also shape our understanding of a person and more importantly, cause us to respond to a person in ways that we would not ordinarily respond, thus influencing that person’s understanding of herself.

One common response, as it turns out, is to ignore or forget the person. The author, John Swinton, correlates this to unfriending someone on Facebook. It turns out that the person with dementia, particularly if they are placed in an institution, is rarely visited, except by a few close family members. The reason? “He/she won’t remember anyway.” It does not seem to occur to people that this person might be horribly lonely, in the same way that we would be if we were forgetful and forgotten. If this same person had cancer or some other form of chronic illness, would she be as easily ignored, questions Swinton?

More disturbing to me in all of this is the reaction I have observed in the church, a reaction verified by Swinton. The church, it turns out, seems also to easily forget or unfriend those who have difficulty remembering. These folks are never brought to church – a place of familiarity for them – although the church (the pastor/elder) will occasionally come to them. They are rarely if ever prayed for in a congregational prayer where nearly every other disease, including chronic diseases, is regularly brought before the throne of grace.

I remember my mother asking our very large church whether there might be a Stephen’s Minister who could spend time with my dad now and again, even though he still lives with her, just for some company. She was told no one was available for that sort of thing, although a kindly gentleman from the congregation was eventually located who was willing to spend time with my dad every other week – truly a Godsend.
I have long observed that our churches, like our culture, are obsessed with youth and that this obsession leads to a neglect of those who have served the church well their entire lives. It is hip these days to worry about the marginalized, but how often do our elderly fit into this paradigm? Are they not marginalized in our culture? What will the church do about this group?

With regard to those elderly with various forms of dementia, Swinton asks a haunting question: “Given the ease with which people with dementia can be unfriended, what is it that we actually love in those we claim to love?”

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Male and Female

There is increasing societal pressure to accept homosexual behavior as just another way of being. In addition, there is ongoing pressure to understand gender as something that is or should be self-constructed. This notion includes a complete dismissal of claims that biological categories have anything at all to do with whether one identifies as male or female. 

One of the two texts in my devotional reading this morning was Gen. 2, the "other" creation account. I have read this text many times but one thing that struck me this morning was the loneliness of the first man. God creates man (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah), an interesting Hebrew play on words. He puts the man in a garden, in Eden, so the story goes.

After reading the whole first chapter of Genesis where creation is repeatedly affirmed as good, God comes along in this sequel and says here that something is not good. "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper." 

No suitable helper is found among the animals, so God crafts another person especially for this man. God could have made any sort of person. God could have created another man. In fact, God could have created these first persons androgynous. But curiously, God does not. The person God creates as the suitable helper for the man is a woman, a female. The man responds with poetic glee: "This  is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh (emphasis mine)."

The man has seen other options and realizes that this creature, this woman, is exactly the being God intended for him to become "one flesh" with, a fact Jesus himself refers to.

What struck me as I pondered and re-read this ancient text, is how deeply creational this relationship of man and woman is. This is the way God intended things to be. This created male/female distinction in relation is God's design.

The Levitical and Pauline prohibitions aside, this text seems to me to be the central teaching on gender and sexuality for Reformed folks like myself, who take the goodness of creation seriously.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Seeing God

A few weeks ago, a group of young people visiting our church sang the popular worship song, "Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord." As I listened and worshiped with them I started wondering whether we really understand what  we are asking in a song like this. 

The song goes:
Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.
Open the eyes of my heart, I want to see you, I want to see you.

To see you high and lifted up
Shinin' in the light of your glory
Pour out your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy.

Most of this is repeated, with some variation, and the line "I want to see you" is repeated a number of times.

At least two things are notable here. First, the insistence on wanting to see God. While I like the impulse - I hope to see God someday too - I wonder what would happen if a congregation suddenly did see God. After all, this is YHWH, the Holy One of Israel, the one who told Moses that no one could see his face and live. (Ex. 33:20)

It all just sounds so cavalier to me. Israel does not see God, but trembles in fear at the base of Sinai while Moses is on the mountain with God. In fact, God instructs Israel not to touch the mountain and if they did, they would die. Only Moses and Aaron may go up Mt. Sinai, although the people could hear God's voice at the base. Sounds like fear is the right response to me.

If every instance that an angel appears in the Bible the persons involved are fearful, how much more fearful must it be to see the living God?

The second notable thing in this song is the repetition of the word holy. The song rightly recognizes that the God we seek is holy. But what does that mean? 

In a very basic sense, to be holy is to be set apart. In other words, God is not a big, powerful version of us. God is other. We are like God in certain ways but only God is the Holy One. The Holy God cannot dwell with sinful people. Thus, to ask to see God is in some way to ask to be destroyed.

My hunch is that our rather thoughtless singing of these simple words rarely has the appropriate amount of fear mixed in.

Annie Dillard once wrote about worship:
"Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

She's right, of course. To ask for an audience with YHWH is to ask for God to change you, to strip you of yourself, and to rebuild you into what God wants you to be not necessarily what you want to be. Encountering God guarantees having to let go - and keep letting go - of all kinds of little idols that we all hold dear. This is indeed a fearful thing. A good thing, but a fearful thing.

There is an old saying, "be careful what you wish for." Perhaps we should add, be careful what you sing for.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Graduation Reflections

Just a little less than four years ago, we brought our daughter to the soil of Hope College in Holland, MI. Like many freshmen, she was excited and a little afraid.

Sometime that weekend, we went to a worship service with her led by the chaplain. He preached on Psalm 1, one of my personal favorites. It begins:

            “Blessed is the one who does not walk in the way of the wicked, 
            or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers.
            Her delight is in the law of the LORD and on his law she meditates day and night.
            She is like a tree, planted by a river which bears its fruit in season.”

He said that he sometimes would go to a particular area of the campus called “the pine grove” and would pray, 'Lord, make me like a tree.'

I remember him with his hands up, swaying, and thought he might be a little nutty.

But he instructed the parents assembled that day with those words. He said that we should pray, ‘Lord, make him/her like a tree.’ Of course the idea behind that prayer was that God would work in our children, growing them into people like that righteous person in Psalm 1, a person who lives in communion with God and flourishes as God intended.

So that is what I did these past four years, perhaps more earnestly at the beginning than at the end. 

We, like many other parents that day, brought a vulnerable little sapling and planted her in the soil of Hope hoping her roots would grow deep. Storms came and went and many times I worried whether the little sapling would survive. Sometimes, my little sapling bent so hard under the weight of a stormy blast, I feared she might snap.

As it turned out, the storms did not break her. In fact, they made her stronger, as they often do. And now, at the end of four years, with roots now deep in the soil of Hope, she is a strong young tree, the sort that Psalm 1 envisions.

And I could not be more proud.

Monday, May 27, 2013

"Life Companion"

I am looking for a new phone. I am not a big fan of gadgets that, while they may be useful to some people, really just end up making my life more complicated if for no other reason than I have to try to figure out how to use them.

The cell companies are, in fact, at the top of my list of corporations whose main purpose seems to be to talk me into more and more expensive devices that I “need.” How, for example, have I survived this long without a smartphone? I have no idea. But when I sit in an airport, a meeting, or even a restaurant and watch people who look as though removing their phone from them would be comparable to removing an arm or leg, I’m pretty sure I don’t want anything to do with the smartphone phenomenon.

Alas, my phone is dying, and it looks like our family will be moving to a “data” plan and I will be forced to pick out a new phone. In addition, new responsibilities at work will make the benefits of accessing email anywhere helpful, given that I may be traveling more.

So I went online this morning to check out some options. From looking at a couple of my colleagues phones, and considering cost and compatibility, I decided to investigate the Samsung Galaxy. I was shocked at what I found.

The advertising on the webpage reads as follows:

Samsung Galaxy S4
Life Companion
Make your life richer, simpler, and more fun.
As a real life companion, the new Samsung GALAXY S4 helps bring us closer and captures those fun moments when we are together.
Each feature was designed to simplify our daily lives.
Furthermore, it cares enough to monitor our heath and well-being.
To put it simply, the Samsung GALAXY S4 is there for you.

I hope that disturbs you as much as it does me. A phone that will make my life “richer, simpler, and more fun”? Really??

A phone that “cares”?

A phone that is “there for you”?

Before you dismiss this as just creative marketing, consider how marketing tends to seep into us and shape us, something that Jamie Smith has pointed out.

And perhaps we could even wonder about people who would be moved by a paragraph like that. Is your phone your “companion”? And to think that classic, orthodox Christianity merely worried about putting a person in place of God.

There is something not just disturbing, but really sad about this. And I don’t think it is merely idle worrying on my part. More than once my husband and I have been out to dinner and have watched a (usually young) couple sit across the table from each other and gaze into, not each other’s eyes, but into their phones. A colleague of mine led a trip this past January and mentioned something similar. The students didn’t talk to each other at dinner, except to share something that they found interesting on their phones.

The question with all of this is, of course, how to combat it. If a cell company knows enough to market to the needs of the consumer in a way that suggests that a phone is equivalent to a person, we have already moved a dangerously long way down a questionable road.

So think about Jamie Smith’s question about Christian living: “What kind of person is this habit or practice trying to produce?”

Monday, April 8, 2013

Party God?

“God is the one throwing the party and everybody’s invited and that includes you.”

This quote, from a former pastor from our area, sums up his thoughts about God.

Old notions of God are so…….well, old.

Creeds, historic statements of faith, confessions? Those are just leftovers of a “tribal church” mentality, a church for “us” and against “them” (that is, those who are not us).

This new, inclusive, fun-loving god is the sort of god people can relate to. After all, who wants a God who is loving and just? Who will believe in a god who holds people accountable for their behaviors? Who will worship a god who respects human persons for the responsible image-bearers that they are?

This new, re-imagined god loves everyone. . . .except for those who still believe in the God that the church has professed for more than 2000 years.

This new god, like his followers, accepts everyone just the way they are. . . .except for those who still believe that God created the world with a moral order that reflects the created order, those who still believe that a holy God is loving, yet to be feared. Those who believe that God is, as the beavers said about Aslan, good but not safe.

In other words, this god is not really all that inclusive after all. Nor are this god’s followers. This god’s followers are really rather capricious, including only those who agree with them and whatever they have decided is ‘truth’ this week, something they accuse those who don’t agree with them of being guilty of. The beliefs of this god’s followers are, in other words, inconsistent, self-referentially incoherent, in fact.

Which is what one might expect from those following a god who is anything less than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the god who is not the Tri-personal God who emptied himself in order to repair what his creatures had broken; the God who is not “man” said with a loud voice.

This party-throwing god might be fun, but is certainly not deserving of our worship, praise, and love. Only the one true God – the Triune God of mystery and majesty as revealed in Scripture and testified to by the holy catholic church – is deserving of that.

Be careful who you worship.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Back to Blogging

Some of you have noticed, and even mentioned, that I have been a bit neglectful since I came back from Indonesia. That is, I have not blogged at all since late January when I returned.

It is nice that some of you have missed these posts. But the truth is, it has taken a while to get back into full swing. In the past six weeks, I have re-adjusted to western living, gotten back into the swing of a full academic life with teaching, mentoring, student visits, committees, and more. I guess I just haven't had the energy to think about blogging.

And I really haven't had much to say. 

After my experience in Indonesia, I needed time to process the work I did there, my reactions to a new situation and culture, and consider how all of that has shaped me. For me, that meant being quiet for a while.

I still haven't processed it all, but I am working on it. And I am ready to start reflecting with you on life, God, and other mysteries.

A few weeks back, there was an article in our local newspaper about women and work. It was written by Lonnae O'Neal Parker and was originally published in the Washington Post. Apparently, although a large proportion of Americans think Michelle Obama is handling her job as First Lady quite well, one group is quite unhappy with her: feminists.

The article noted that when her husband became President in 2008, she made public her intention to be "mom-in-chief." Feminists claimed that she had been "victimized by her husband's choices," according to Parker. This irritated me.

I currently hold a Ph.D. in theology and am a full-time, tenure track faculty member at a leading North American seminary. But prior to this life, I was mom-in-chief for our family. Both jobs were meaningful to me, both were jobs I felt a strong calling to, and both constitute important Kingdom work.

I also consider myself a Christian feminists of sorts. I say 'of sorts' because I am interested in many of the issues that impact women but I am not the sort that thinks my core identity is my gender. My core identity is that of an adopted child of God through union with Christ. That is who I am first and foremost; and I am female.

What I can't quite understand in this whole debate about Michelle Obama, is why her choice is considered selling out. Why does taking a break from one's career constitute being "victimized?" Why can't it simply be what she feels called to do for a time, given the demands of their family? And I can't help but wonder whether the feminists who are unhappy with her would be equally unhappy with her husband if the roles were reversed. If Michelle was President, would Barak have been victimized by her job if he chose to be dad-in-chief?

I rather doubt it.

And isn't it interesting that those who are criticizing never even mention the two children involved. From a Christian perspective, might sacrificing oneself (including one's career) for the sake of one's children actually be a good thing to do whether one is male or female? It may be true that women have had to do this more frequently in the past than men, but that simply means that we need to talk more about certain presuppositions regarding gender roles within a family.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that when one knows his/her true identity, it is not difficult to make decisions about his/her children and family that put self-interest and self-promotion in second place. Perhaps we need to work on allowing folks to make the best choices for their families and leave the judgments about selling out one's career out of the picture.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Final Reflection on Indonesia

"So how was Indonesia?"

I can't tell you how many times I have been asked that since my return to West Michigan. Its a simple question, really. And yet not so simple.

My standard answer has become, "Hard but good."

What do I mean? Well, I mean that this was not a tropical vacation. It was an invitation to join the people of God on the other side of the world for a few weeks. It was an invitation to teach and to learn. It was an invitation to expand my world in many ways and to expand myself.

But expanding can be hard. Stretching, as good as it might be, is difficult and often painful.

Why was this particular task painful? 

On a very superficial level, I missed some of the things that make my life here very easy. Things like brushing my teeth under a faucet of clean running water; going for a walk in my neighborhood whenever I choose to without an escort; not worrying about two-inch cockroaches invading my living space.

It was also hard being alone. The people of Reformed Evangelical Seminary of Indonesia were absolutely wonderful. But I had to travel there alone, and when I wasn't teaching, I was often alone. My husband and family were literally a half a world away. I was homesick.

What was good?

I learned that I have the most wonderful family in Indonesia - the family of God. The faculty, staff, and students of RESI bent over backwards to welcome me. They taught me what hospitality, welcoming the stranger, looks like. 

I learned a little about what is often called 'culture shock.' Being in a place where nearly everything is completely different from what I am used to was both disconcerting and tiring. I had a small taste of what our international students must be dealing with when they come to the U.S. to study. 

I learned that life is hard for so many people in the world. The day I left Jakarta more than 10,000 people of that city were displaced by the worst floods they have had in 30 years. The people at RESI spent a good part of the day packaging meals and supplies for folks who had literally lost everything, which was not much to begin with. I was often struck by the fact that much of the world lacks the sorts of things that I take for granted every single day.  

I learned that in a country where Christians are a tiny minority and life is frequently difficult, they don't worry much about the intellectual problem of evil. It seems that this "problem" is more a problem for the privileged west than folks that really have good reason to complain. And they don't take their faith for granted. The faith of the Indonesian people I met is vibrant and passionate. 

God worked in my life during my weeks in Jakarta. He reminded me of my dependence on him. He fostered a new level of gratitude in me. And he helped me experience just a little bit more tangibly the breadth and diversity of his kingdom. I am so glad I'm a part of the family of God, the body of Christ.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Fullness of Creation

"How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all." Psalm 104:24

I have always enjoyed the natural world. The diversity of animals, plants, and even things like bugs fascinates me (although I prefer bugs from a distance). The multitude of creatures, some downright funny in appearance and actions, are an endless source of delight and wonder.

And I have had plenty to wonder at here in Indonesia. There are so many new creatures to marvel over, some of which I have only read about before, but never seen.

There are the tropical fruits. Fruits with names like snake-fruit, and three different kinds of rambutan.

And then there are the plants. The lotus flower, an image frequently associated with the far east, is an incredible water-lily like plant with leaves that are at least 2 feet in diameter. It looks like you could walk across the water on these plants.

The Kapok tree, which can grow upwards of 65 feet tall.

Orchids and bamboo and all manner of tropical plants.

And then there are the creepy-crawly things, some of which I would like better outside of my apartment; beautiful butterflies, little geckos, and snails almost as big as my shoe!

All of these things and more have added to the experience of being in this unique and beautiful country. 

What a wonderful, imaginative, astonishing God we serve! Praise the Lord, says the writer of Psalm 104 after contemplating the creation.

 And this is exactly the response the natural world should evoke, says Paul. The wonder of creation should cause us to contemplate the creator. And while I regularly do this at home, Indonesia has offered me brand new opportunities to revel in God's wisdom. Praise the LORD indeed!

Friday, January 11, 2013


I am finally settling in here; getting into a routine that is as close to normal as I am likely to have during my stay. But I am homesick.

No, I'm not sitting around crying or feeling sorry for myself. Its just that I miss the familiar things that mark my life. Things like my family, my house, and my coffee pot. But its more than that. I miss the cold, crisp January mornings of Michigan and the clear night sky, filled with stars. I miss the cardinals sitting on the rail of my deck, their bright red feathers a brilliant contrast to the clean white snow.

Its not that Indonesia isn't beautiful. It is! This is my apartment with beautiful trees and lush green grass. And the walkway to the classrooms.

It is beautiful and tropical, warm and lush.
 And then there are the products of Indonesia, as colorful and diverse as the country itself.

And the food - a delight to the eye and the palate!

But it is not home.

An Indonesian friend here said when he was studying in the states, he missed the Muslim calls to prayer that frame the days here. (This is the most Muslim country in the world, I am told.) He is a Christian, and yet that regular sound was a sound of home for him.

Many of the students at the seminary where I teach are from other countries. We sometimes talk about culture shock and cultural adjustments. I think I have a better idea of what that entails for them. It is, at least in part, a sort of homesickness for all things familiar.

But I think one of the good things about an experience like this, is that it is a constant reminder that our longings for home are reflections of a much deeper longing - a longing for God, the one in whose presence we are always home. Our hearts are restless, says Augustine, until they rest in thee. This world, the world as we know it, is only our temporary home. We await our true home - the restored heavens and earth where the dwelling place of God is with humans. Only there will we be truly home.

Monday, January 7, 2013


Indonesia is a country of contrasts. Jakarta is a very large, modern city with everything you would expect: fine hotels and restaurants, malls, and even western places like Starbucks, McDonalds, and KFC.

But I learned yesterday from my friends here that there are also areas of the country that are undeveloped, even primitive. I was told that on some islands, the people still do not wear clothing and are basically, as far as I could tell, hunter-gatherers.

The contrasts do not end there, however. Within Jakarta there are also stark contrasts. Right next to the modern, expensive buildings in the picture above, are slums. These are not like American slums. Even the worst slums in America have housing. The people in the slums of Jakarta appear to piece together their homes from whatever they can find including scrap metal, cardboard, plywood, and anything else that might provide shelter. I was not able to get a good picture from the car, but this may give you some idea:

The modern appearance seems like any American city. Until I see scenes like this and worse. And then I read the paper. Human rights issues, especially those involving women and children are so much more problematic here in part, because it seems that many do not even recognize them as problems. I read about crimes like rape that frequently go unpunished are are widely under-reported in a society that still blames the victim and her family.

Depravity seems to hit me right between the eyes here. Humanistic optimism seems to be a luxury of the west, if it is even realistic there. 

Pluralism wants us to think that all religions are essentially offer the same thing in different ways: a route to God. But here, in this developing country, that seems even more like a lie than it does at home. The values taught by Christianity, although often poorly practiced, stand in stark contrast to those of other world religions. And hope for the future cannot lie with human ingenuity or even compassion. The problems are too big and humans are too selfish and corrupt. 

The only real hope is that which is offered in Christ whose saving work began the renewal of all things and promises a future restoration where there will be no more poverty, rape, disease, pain, and death. 

Control Issues

I am a creature of habit. Any member of my family will tell you that.

My morning routine is exactly that: routine. My bedtime routine is also always the same. It bugs me when things are not the same. I even like to sit in the same spot in church every week and tend to get a bit cranky if we are late and I have to sit somewhere else
Nonetheless, I also think of myself as rather adventuresome. Something my family will also confirm. I like trying new things, going to new places, tasting new foods, etc. So although I was nervous about heading off to Indonesia, as my previous blog posts testify, I was also excited about this adventure.

Until Friday.

Friday was the day I left everything and everybody I know to travel to this distant place in Southeast Asia, a bit north of Australia, and a bit south of Viet Nam.

The flight to Chicago was uneventful. After all, how much difficulty could there be on a one hour flight to a familiar airport? But once I got to Chicago the reality of what I was doing started to sink in. (Have I also mentioned that I tend to be impulsive, not always thinking through my more adventurous ideas?)Rather than walking from one gate to another, I had to leave the main terminal via train and go to the international terminal, a completely separate building as it turns out. I realized I was leaving the world I knew and was comfortable with for a place I knew little about. To say I felt uncomfortable would be an understatement.

Once on the plane, I was fine again. After all, planes are familiar, although Cathay-Pacific was WAY nicer than anything I have flown in the recent past. But then came Hong Kong.

I had a 14 hour layover there. Because of that, I booked a room at the airport hotel. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to get there. It looked so simple online.

There was no gate attendant as I am used to seeing at U.S. airports. So who to ask?

I finally asked someone in a Cathay-Pacific uniform who kindly informed me that I had to head to immigration.

I stopped to text my husband to tell him I had arrived in Hong Kong only to find out that my cell phone did not have service in Hong Kong. Now I was really alone and feeling every bit of it.

I got to immigration only to find a huge line. I just wanted to go to my room at the hotel! After clearing that hurdle, I still needed to find the “easy, enclosed walkway to the hotel.” It might have been easy and enclosed, but it was also elusive. All I saw were luggage carousels. I asked a kindly immigration officer which way to go and he pointed me in the right direction.

I was tired, anxious, and on the verge of tears by the time I found the walkway to the hotel, made it to the registration desk, and had the key to my room in my hand.

I got to my room only to find that I had no idea how to turn on the lights. Was I really this stupid? By that point, exhaustion from the 16 hour flight, stress from trying to find my way alone, and not even being able to text my husband took over. I sat down in my dark hotel room and cried.

Having taken care of that, I got up, went back to the door to my room, and opened it to get some light from the hall, hoping I could figure out how to turn on the room lights. Which I did. Turns out I had to put my card key in a little box just inside the door. Of course no one told me that. With lights and a quiet room, I placed an old-fashioned international call to my husband and started crying again when I heard his voice. Then, somewhat recovered, I made a cup of tea.

Then I realized that of course, I had not been alone.

God was with me, and even reminded me of that while I was on the elevator to my room. I heard that still, small voice say ‘you are NOT alone.’ And I think if I had remembered that sooner, or been listening more carefully, the night might have been a bit less stressful.

All this is to say that God wants me to depend on him. Yes, of course I need to use my head too. But when I totally rely on my own instincts and skills, trying to control the situation and make it go the way I want it to go, it rarely ends well and I often end up harried and upset.

It seems that God wanted to remind me right up front, on the very first day of this particular adventure, that forgetting about Who is really in control of his project would not be a good idea.
So I am back to my routine of beginning my day with God, listening to him remind me that he is with me always, even to the close of the age.