Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent Reflections, part 3

Last Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, my pastor preached on Matthew 11 focusing in on verses 1-4. In this story, John the Baptist is in prison. We can suppose he has heard about the teaching and miracles of Jesus from his followers. These followers of John are in the crowd that day and they ask Jesus a question on behalf of John: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

My pastor reminded me that morning that just a few chapters earlier, John had been preaching in the desert “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” He had also told his followers not to get too enthralled with his message because there was one coming after him whose sandal straps he was unworthy to untie. And of course, John baptized Jesus.

So why this question? Didn’t John know?

My pastor suggested that John’s circumstances made him doubt even what he had seen with his own eyes.

That not only made sense to me it also made John seem utterly human, a lot more like many of us than some spiritual giant. And isn’t that the case with many of the so-called giants in Scripture? Particularly the prophetic giants?

Just consider the first Elijah who, after courageously standing up to the prophets of Baal and watching the power of God soundly defeat them, descends into utter despair. Jezebel was not happy about the slaughter of her prophets and was out for blood. Elijah runs to the desert outside Beersheba, sits down under a broom tree, and tells God he is done, asking God to take his life.

Answering God’s call to speak God’s word and plead his cause to the people – the essence of prophecy – is hard work. It is generally thankless work. And discouragement lurks around the edges of this task waiting for the chance to pounce.

It’s easy to forget the mighty works and faithfulness of God in the past when you are sitting in a prison of discouragement. Hope can look more like a fairy tale.

Advent is a season that reminds us of God’s work in the world in the past, his continuing work today, and his promised faithfulness for the future.

God is King: Let the earth be glad!
Christ is victor: his rule has begun!
The Spirit is at work: creation is renewed!
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!  (Contemporary Testimony, art. 2)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Advent Reflections, part 2

Yesterday in the mail I received the alumni magazine of my college alma mater. In addition to the usual sorts of articles, this particular issue included the distinguished alumni. These are indeed people who have done some pretty impressive things. But it got me thinking….

I wonder if Mary would have made the distinguished alumni list; or Joseph; or Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. I have no bone to pick with these sorts of honors. I have no doubt they are well-earned. My own institution does this yearly as well. I’m not sure how to get around such things.

Nonetheless, it is the case that Scripture consistently points out the honor of those who are dishonored by societal standards. It consistently urges us to take notice not of the strong, but of the weak and marginalized. We are prompted to consider those who the world would never consider; who will not make the pages of Forbes or U.S. News; who may not be known by anyone other than those closest to them.

It may have been the juxtaposition of receiving this alumni news with sharing dinner with three of my closest friends last night that prompted my thinking about this. None of the three will ever get an award. But all three are more than award worthy.

All three spent a good portion of their lives as homemakers, making sure their homes ran well, tending to the children and their needs, giving others a place to be welcomed. One invested herself in a profoundly handicapped child, working eventually to begin a home for other children whose parents were now aging and finding it difficult to care for these special-needs kids. One has served her four children tirelessly, making sure they had the education and opportunities that she longed for but did not have access to. One recently gave up the peace and quiet of the empty nest to take on a needy teenager whose adoptive family treated her more like an indentured servant than a beloved daughter. This child’s grades have gone from D’s last spring to A’s and B’s this fall. But not without a lot of effort. All have been fully invested in their churches.

None of them had high-powered careers although all were fully capable. And none of them resent that they poured their lives into their church and family in place of such a career, although they could.

As I read about those who were marked out as distinguished and thought about my friends, it seemed to me that their lives look much more like the lives of Mary than most of those we typically call attention to. And like Mary, I think that God regards these women as ‘highly favored,’ perhaps because their work here on earth goes unnoticed by most.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent Reflection

This past weekend, wedged between the hype and indulgence of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the first Sunday of Advent quietly arrived.

The days surrounding this Sunday and the Sunday itself have at least one similarity: all are forward-looking, steeped in anticipation. But that is where the similarities end.

The consumer holidays look forward to increasing the amount of stuff we or others have purportedly to increase one’s happiness quotient. Advent looks forward to the coming of Christ, the only one whose coming will deliver true happiness once and for all.

The consumer holidays look forward to parties and food and family gathered together in all of their imperfect relationships. Advent looks forward to the wedding feast with the Lamb, the ultimate party where broken relationships will finally be healed.

The consumer holidays look forward to symbols of abundant life that moths and rust most surely will destroy at some point. Advent looks forward to the abundant life promised by God that nothing – not even death – can destroy. In fact, Advent points us forward to the day when death itself will be destroyed.

After an election year filled with strife, where insults and promises filled the air, Advent reminds us yet again that the Prince of Peace came not with power and prestige and wealth, but as a tiny baby of unknown, poor parents. The promises of this Prince are the only truly trustworthy promises and they come to us in a power that is displayed as weakness.

God – the Creator and Sustainer of all there is – taking on human flesh, indeed that of a baby born of a woman just like you and I. The great theological reflections of Chalcedon barely scratch the surface of this mystery.

And so we enter this season once again. Filled with hope we pray “O come O come Emmanuel.” Indeed, come quickly.

Friday, November 11, 2016

5,539 Miles

13 days, 13 states, 5,539 miles, Hoover Dam, 3 National Parks, and 1 wedding with family = an awesome vacation!
A few weeks ago, on the day we returned, I posted this line on my Facebook page. I’m still high on the trip my husband and I took. We drove and camped our way to California, stopping along the way at a few places we had not been before and revisiting others.
We are not landscape snobs. Our family has generally driven cross-country to our destination. We have learned to ignore people’s remarks about places like Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. We have camped in all of those places, stopped along the road, and found that if one takes a little time in this “fly-over zone,” there is much to be appreciated. Each area of the country has its own peculiar beauty.
I admit that we were not exactly thrilled with the idea of driving through Nevada on our way home. But it turns out that beginning with the peculiar salt formations at Mono Lake all the way up to the northeast corner where it meets Utah, Nevada is a strangely beautiful place.

I am also not particularly fond of the dry southwest. I brought plenty of lotion on this trip! But there too, the stunning colors that layer the land and the odd vegetation that is able to survive there have a beauty that is unmatched.

It is not uncommon to hear people quote Psalm 19 when thinking about the creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Or Psalm 8: “When I consider the heavens, the moon and the stars that you put in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them?” The direction of the gaze is always up.
But while the night sky at Homolovi State Park and Death Valley National Park was stunning, so were the rocks, one of which is represented below.

If we did not praise God for the beauty of this world and his glory that was so evident in every place we traveled, I am certain that the very rocks would cry out, as Jesus indicated at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
O Lord our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.

Just Kidding

So, just in case you were all excited about my move to the WordPress address and format that I mentioned in my last post, I have decided to put that off for a while. 

It turns out that it is difficult for folks to get notices that I have posted. I am also not familiar enough with the mechanics of the pages to have it work the way I would like it to. I have to ask a colleague to help with background and other issues.

In other words, for now, I am remaining here so any of you who follow (I know there are a few) can continue to get notices when I write. I do plan to put up two recent posts in the next day or two. 

Thanks for hanging in there with me as I explore other options. For now, the more familiar is better for me. If I change my mind again, I will let you know :)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Moving Domains

Dear Friends,

You may have noticed over the past year that I have not posted as regularly to this blog as I once did. I have struggled with finding the time to keep this up with my other responsibilities. After discussing this with several of my colleagues, I have decided to try again rather than give up. To that end, my technical support person at Calvin Seminary has advised that I move this blog to a different format. I anticipate making that move within the next week and to begin writing regularly again.

I hope to not only comment on various theological topics that seem timely, but also to begin to include a few more personal anecdotes and stories  (some of which I have done in the past), and maybe even some practical ideas related to life in general, as the title suggests.

Thank you for reading this over the past number of years. I do hope you will sign up to continue to read my thoughts, comment on what I am sharing, and wonder together with me about Life, God, and Other Mysteries.

My new site (which is in the final stages of construction) is lifegodmysteries.com.

Thanks again!


Monday, March 21, 2016

Let Everything Praise the Lord

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Cloudy Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 30, 2016


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.


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.