Monday, July 17, 2017

Inch by Inch

I have been out of town for a little over two weeks. It has been a wonderful time of relaxing, entertaining family members, and enjoying the beautiful Michigan summer days near both an inland lake and Lake Michigan, The Big Lake as we on the west side of the Mitten state call it.

As I have been working my way back into the reality of responsibilities here at home, I realized I have not seen my Dad since I left. Of course I have not seen my Mom either but I have spoken to her several times just to find out how she is doing. I realized this afternoon as I plan to head to my office tomorrow and also visit with my Mom and my Dad that I have not really missed my Dad the past two weeks. For most of my adult life I have looked forward to visits with him and with my Mom so this lack of missing him seems strange. In fact, I feel a bit guilty.

The theologian in me says I have no need to feel guilty. I have not dishonored him in any way. I have not shirked my responsibility as a daughter. I have not, in fact, done anything morally impermissible with respect to my Dad.

So why have I not missed him?

I’m not sure but it seems to me that this is yet one more consequence of dementia. The Dad I go visit and interact with is not the Dad I have always enjoyed seeing, talking to, and interacting with. Oh, there are still vestiges of him there. But the full orbed person that he is has been diminished by this horrible disease.

In fact, I do miss my Dad. I miss him terribly and regularly. But the Dad I visit now is very different than the Dad I spent most of my life with. This fact not only means I don’t miss him, the physical him, in the same way. It also means that visiting him always comes with grief.

This morning as I was spending time with God I reflected and prayed for a person in our church who lost her husband suddenly in a bicycle accident this weekend. I also prayed for a young man, my son-in-law’s cousin, whose wife died suddenly this past week. She was the mother of several young children. As I prayed I couldn’t help but wonder about the ways of God. Why, I wondered, should God take someone who was still vibrant and active? Why take a young woman whose children surely need her? Why, while I and my family must watch my Dad slowly die inch by agonizing inch?

I surely do not know. In fact, where all of this is concerned that is the only thing I do know – that I do not know.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Visible Grace

This past Monday I went to a communion service our church sponsors each year for our members who live in the retirement village where my parents live. My mom wanted to bring my dad and wanted me to come along.

I didn’t want to go.

It was in the middle of a work day. My head was not tuned to worship that afternoon at 2 pm. My mind was on the seminar I was in all morning, the work waiting for me in my office, and getting home in time to stop at the grocery store.

Sometimes you do things just because your mom asks you to, just because of God’s command that you must honor your parents. So I went expecting nothing but a hug from my parents.

Dad’s dementia is such that he now is not always able to speak a full sentence. He rarely comes to church anymore. It is too difficult for my mom to bring him and too difficult for him to sit through.

Rev. Boven led worship that afternoon. I always appreciate her warm, pastoral presence as she opens Scripture and nourishes us with God’s word. This Monday afternoon service was no exception. The Spirit can work in even the most distracted souls.

And then communion, the Lord’s Supper, where Christ invites us to lift up our hearts to commune with the Triune God. There, Christ visibly offers us himself as nourishment for our Christian pilgrimage.  My Dad, the man who had offered God’s people the body and blood of Christ so many times as a pastor, wasn’t sure what to do with the tray of bread when it was passed to him. And when Rev. Boven said, “Take, eat, remember and believe…”, my mom had to prompt him to eat the spiritual nourishment offered him. My heart sank a bit and my questions of ‘why’ rose to God.

But then came our final song: My Jesus I Love Thee.
               My Jesus I love Thee I know Thou art mine.
               For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
               My gracious redeemer, my savior art thou;
               If ever I loved Thee my Jesus ‘tis now.

Dad sang every word.
In harmony.
Just like he always had.
Time stood still. A kairos moment.

I knew then and there that God had blessed my little step of obedience. Following his command to honor my parents by attending that afternoon communion service had offered me one of those all too rare glimpses of the Dad I remember but rarely get to see. Like the Supper, God had offered me visible grace to carry me through this journey.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Benedictine Option

This past weekend my husband and I listened to the audio book version of the Benedictine Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Culture by Rod Dreher. We had heard a lot about the book from friends, the media, and others. We had numerous questions concerning the book and what we were told it was claiming so we were listening a bit more critically than we normally might have on our weekend jaunt to the Chicago area.

We were intrigued by some of the ideas we had heard from others. We were also concerned by certain portrayals that seemed to indicate that the Benedictine Option had to do with something akin to an Amish rejection of culture. It does not.

As it turned out, we were pleasantly surprised. In fact, we were so surprised we are fairly convinced that both the harshest critics and the uncritical fans simply have not yet read the book. They should.

While it may be the case that Dreher oversimplifies consequences of the history of thought in the West, he is also not completely off-base as some have suggested. 

Likewise with his rather pessimistic analysis of culture as a whole, especially morality in America. It is difficult to look at what is considered unacceptable in American culture today versus the sorts of behaviors that were considered unacceptable even 50 years ago and not be a bit pessimistic. 

But the target of his book is not culture at large. That the pundits at outlets like NPR are offended by Dreher's assertion only goes to demonstrate his point. Judeo-Christian morality is out of fashion in America. Dreher isn't happy about this but his main problem is with the church.

At it's core, Dreher's book is a call for the church to start being the church. The church is to be in the world not of the world according to St. Paul. But Dreher thinks the church has compromised. Instead of a counter-cultural movement the church has become just another cultural artifact. Instead of being a light challenging the darkness around it, the church is asking the darkness what it wants and capitulating to it not just in behavior, but even in worship.

Is Dreher right? Well, I am old enough to remember when the church I am a part of did look significantly different from the world. I was not like my classmates in school and I was painfully aware of that. But it was good. Kids didn't reject me and I knew clearly who I was.

If you go back another generation you can hear stories of the church supporting people in the depression. I hear stories like that of my Grandpa who cut his house in half - yes literally - so his brother who was immigrating could have a good start in America. I hear stories about people for whom personal happiness was secondary to living a life centered around love of God and neighbor.

Is Dreher right? At the very least he's not completely wrong in his analysis of the church. Could it be that what is really going on is, as one article suggests, that American Christians are just afraid of actually sacrificing cultural conformity and acceptance for the call to conform to their true identity in Christ? 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Lord, If you had been here.....

Three times this past month I have heard the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). Each preacher has offered a different angle on this story and each one has opened the Word of God in this text for me so that I have heard what I don’t recall hearing before. This, of course, is part of the miracle of preaching.

It is hard to hear this text repeatedly however and not wonder about a few things. First, although I know the end of the story, and I know Jesus’ stated reasons for not heading to Bethany straight away to heal Lazarus, the characters in the story don’t know anything of what I know. And the characters that intrigue me most are Mary and Martha.

They send for Jesus to come and heal their brother. The text says that Jesus loves them. Then the English version I am looking at today then says this: “So, when he heard Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” What a strange verse! If I put it into my own terms it sounds something like this: ‘So, when she heard that her child was ill, she stayed away.’ It makes no sense.  Even his disciples can’t make sense of what he is doing. The next thing we are told is that Lazarus has died.

So the second thing I wonder about is his arrival in Bethany. Twice we hear this line: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” First from Martha’s lips (v. 21) and then from Mary’s (v. 32).

I read the words so easily. But the simple sentence belies the painful reality. It is likely the words sounded much more like this: Martha or Mary sobbing…Lord….more sobbing….if you had been here….more sobbing, grabbing Jesus’ robe…..my brother….choking back more sobs….would not have died…..completely breaking down.

I can imagine this, because at a certain level I have lived this. More than twenty years ago now, I received a phone call early in the morning that my older sister had died. This was completely out of the blue. Unlike Lazarus, she had not been ill. In fact, she had gotten married just four months earlier. She apparently had suffered a major seizure at home while her new husband was at work. He came home and found her dead.

When the shock finally wore off, my question was a variation of Mary and Martha’s. “Lord where were you? You could have saved her, couldn’t you?”

I heard lots of answers from lots of people. None of them mattered. In fact, I could find a hole in every reason people attempted to give me for my sister’s death. It made no sense to me and most of the time it still doesn’t. Like Martha, I could say I believe in the resurrection of the body. But like Martha, I wanted her back – then and there.

Ultimately, I had to learn to hear and believe those astounding words of Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Gradually I came to understand that this was no idle promise. This claim was the reality that interprets all other realities. If I couldn’t embrace this claim – that Jesus is life, the very embodiment of life – then as Paul writes, my faith was in vain.

In an age where salvation is under constant threat of being watered down to public activism, there is nothing more important than remembering this core of the Christian faith. Christian conceptions of salvation cannot be wrested from the necessarily eschatological framework in which the Christian faith is embedded. The promises are ours now, but await a future time for their fulfillment. As long as we live between Good Friday and Easter, we live as people of hope, longing for the day when our faith will be sight.

In memory of Judith Rae DeJong-Clousing

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Who Is My Neighbor?

This has been a discouraging few months as far as politics goes. First there was the campaign. Clearly civility is not a priority in the U.S. Then there was the election. I still find the outcome difficult to believe. Then there was the post-election reaction. More incivility. With excuses. Now, several weeks into the new administration, my disappointment continues on many levels.

My biggest disappointment throughout all of this, however, is with the Christian community.

It has been hard for me to understand how Christians could support a man who so clearly did not affirm anything vaguely resembling the historic Christian faith and whose treatment of others seems to be at odds with the basic teachings of our faith. I have heard a variety of reasons by now but remain unconvinced that supporting such a person was the best option.

But I have been almost as puzzled by Christians who seem to find it ok not just to disagree with those who support the current administration, but also to attack and demean those with whom they disagree through everything from name-calling to condescending attitudes.

This past Sunday our pastor preached about the Good Samaritan. The expert in the law asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?” Jesus offers a story about a man who gets attacked on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and Levite walk by without helping. Some time later a Samaritan stops to help.

Jesus then turns the question back to the expert in the law – so who was a neighbor to this man? The Samaritan. Hmmm….a problematic answer for the legal expert who by nature and nurture would hate the Samaritan. Go and do likewise, Jesus tells him.

While there are as many ways to interpret this parable as there are theologians to weigh in, it seems quite clear that at the very least our neighbor is someone in need, and someone we might have to take a risk to help. If we look at this parable in the context of Jesus’ teaching overall, the neighbor might also be an enemy given that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44).

So the answer to who is my neighbor turns out to be rather surprising. In fact, it turns out to be everyone, even those who disagree with us, wish to harm us, and hate us.

Given this, what does it look like to love that “uneducated white male” who seems to be the brunt of jokes, criticism, and general dislike?

Or what about that “coastal liberal” or “educated elite?”

Or how about the “evangelical soccer mom?”

Or the African-American? Or Muslim? Or Hispanic?
Perhaps one place to begin loving our enemy is to stop posting demeaning statements about groups of people on Facebook, Twitter, or some other impersonal form of communication and find someone within the group you are sure you know so much about and TALK TO THEM! Listen to their story. Listen to their fears. Listen to their hopes and dreams for themselves, their kids, their grandkids, and the people they love. If possible, share your story with them so they hear the same from you.

Pray for them, as Jesus commanded. Seek their welfare.

Listen with a critical ear to your favorite news sources. Recently, when the news was reporting on a person quite well known to many in our area it became apparent how much even my most trusted news sources get wrong. If they could not get even the simple personal facts about someone correct, facts that were widely available, what else might they be overlooking in their effort to get the latest news to the public? It’s a question worth asking in part because how you listen to the news affects how you love your neighbor.

Loving your neighbor is not an option. Even the neighbor who is your enemy. How, in this contentious time in history, will Christians make themselves known by their love?

Monday, January 23, 2017


Flourishing: growing or developing successfully
(from dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/flourish)

Theologically, it conjures up thoughts of the biblical notion of shalom, that blessed state of living in the presence of God that results from living righteously and doing justice. Psalm 1 offers of picture of this life showing the righteous one flourishing like a tree planted by streams of water.

In my circles, this word – flourishing – is thrown around often, so often in fact that it has lost most of its biblical connotations. Most often, it is not associated with joy, that deep-seated peace that passes all understanding that comes from fellowship with God and neighbor. Nor does it sound the least bit eschatological which is the biblical thrust of the idea. Often it has to do with one’s vocation. And most of the time it sounds more like a question of one’s temporal happiness than a biblical vision of flourishing.

As I travelled up to rural northern Michigan this past Thursday I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the rural poor, most not educated beyond high school or trade school, have the luxury to wonder if they are flourishing in their careers, working in their “sweet spot” as one person called it. And I wondered if this is not one more example of the sort of thinking that divides America between the educated or coastal “elite” and the rest.

Many of these people are those who clean my hotel room, serve me food, and check me out at the grocery store. They make the parts that go in my car and computer, those that have not been outsourced that is. They deliver the packages containing my online purchases. They work third shift and are generally paid overtime for working more than forty hours. Likewise, if there is not enough work in a week, they work less than forty hours and get paid less. In general, their lives, especially economically, have considerably more uncertainty than the lives of myself or my highly educated peers.

Some of these folks would tell you they would prefer to do something other than what they are doing to make a living. Some would simply shrug if you asked and say, ‘well, it’s a job.’ Talking about a ‘sweet spot’ or flourishing in their work would sound like nonsense. They are thankful they have a job at all.

Are they happy? Probably no more or less so than those of us who spend our time discussing whether a potential employee will be working in her sweet spot.  

What’s my point? It is that while those of us with advanced degrees, particularly those of us in the academic world, sit around and discuss whether or not we are flourishing in our work, most of the rest of society simply goes to work. They do their jobs without thought of recognition, or awards, and certainly not with any thought to whether they are flourishing or not. Mostly, they hope that they will continue to have a job to do so that they can provide for themselves and their families.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t discuss vocational flourishing? Well….no. It is a worthwhile topic.

However, we seem to assume that flourishing means feeling good and being happy. That is certainly the case from an eschatological perspective. But exactly how that comports with one’s current vocation is not all that clear. What is clear biblically, is that to follow God’s call on one’s life is no easy task. Take a look at the prophets who were called by God to their task or what Hebrews 11 says about those prophets.

And take a look at what Jesus says about following him - our primary vocation. He talks about taking up crosses, suffering, and counting the cost. The trick in all of this seems to be flourishing in spite of one’s calling, not necessarily because of it. At least in this life. It is living out our lives before the face of God. That sort of life flourishes even in adversity.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Now What?

Christmas is over. The presents are unwrapped, the wrapping paper thrown away or recycled, the family and guests have all gone home. We have even passed Epiphany, the commemoration of the wise men arriving to worship Jesus.

If you are like me, sometime in the past week or so you began taking down the Christmas decorations, packing them carefully away for next year. I hope to finish that up soon.

I happen to have several nativity sets that I put up every year. One is merely to look at. The other two are for children to play with. As I was putting the pieces away yesterday I of course came to the baby Jesus. For the past number of weeks, the focus of our devotions and worship has been on the incredible mystery of the incarnation – God taking on human flesh, that of a helpless infant no less.

And now, with all the celebrations over, I was packing up the baby Jesus until next year. That struck me as odd.

As I packed away the symbol I wondered about the person of Christ, now risen and seated at the right hand of the Father. What would I do with Jesus this year?

For that matter, how do I even know what to do with him? There seems to be a lot of confusion about this. You see, its fairly easy to worship the newborn king. The infant Jesus seems helpless and tame, his omni-attributes veiled beneath the chubby baby cheeks.

But what about the Jesus who rebukes evil spirits, tells the woman at the well to sin no more, and accuses his followers of being an “unbelieving and perverse generation”?

And what about the Jesus who instead of proclaiming peace on earth as our Christmas cards and carols proclaim, tells the people: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

Or how about the Jesus who reminds us that the cost of following him is rejection by the world? (Luke 9:23-24; John 15:18-19)

What will I do with all of Jesus – not just the warm and fuzzy parts – this year?