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.