Friday, December 26, 2008

Books of the Year

Peggy Noonan's column in today's Wall Street Journal listed her "books of the year". She commented that she thought reading would be making a comeback in the new year. She figured that the economy might have something to do with it. I don't know about that but I hope she is right. There are a lot of good books out there and many people are getting pretty tired of television and other video selections. Karl Rove had a column about reading, too, in the Wall Street Journal this week. In it, he told about President Bush's reading for the year. The common thinking is that President Bush is a light weight intellect. But, Rove who enjoys a reading friendship with the President, shows how wrong that common view is. Bush read widely in history and fiction over the past year. He rarely watches tv preferring to read. And he read almost 100 books this past year. I didn't quite match his presidential efforts but I managed to read almost three a month and I dipped into many others which I never finished (promising myself I would come back to them). I reread some others, as well.

Like I said, there are a lot of really good books out there and I wish I had read more. I have been on an Adam Hochschild kick every since I read King Leopold's Ghost in 2006. In 2007 I read his Bury The Chains about the social movement in England that brought an end to the worldwide slave trade. This movement was led by evangelical Christians and Hochschild, who does not share their Christian commitment, tells a bracing story. So, continuing to follow Hochschild's lead, this year I read Half the Way Home which is a memoir about the relationship with his father (who was instrumental in saving much land in the Adirondack State Park in New York for public use and for the founding of the Adirondack Museum - which I visited several times when we lived in NY). I, also, read an earlier work of his: Mirror at Midnight, which offers his perspective on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It is full of insights into South African history.

I read some other authors whose previous works I enjoyed, as well. I read another Geraldine Brooks novel called People of the Book. In this book, she tells the story of a precious Jewish scroll as it made its journey through Europe in the middle ages. Fascinating history and excellent writing. I read Leif Enger's new book since I loved Peace Like a River. The new book is good but it would be hard to beat the power of his first one, one of my all time favorites. I picked up Marianne Robinson's new book called Home. In an earlier book called Gilead she wrote lovingly of a small town community and a friendship between two older pastors. In this new book she wrote in more detail about one of those pastors and his family. Now his wife is dead and all his children are grown and have moved on with lives and families of their own. Except for a daughter who had a failed relationship and returned home to look after her aging dad, and a son who was the prodigal of the family. In piercing detail she shows how hard it is for a prodigal to come home and find forgiveness, especially when offered poorly and accepted poorly.

A new novel and a leading candidate for my favorite fiction book of the year is by Misha Berlinski called Fieldwork. It is about an American anthropologist who does her fieldwork in some of the rural villages in Thailand. In the course of her work, she is found dead and it is supposed that she committed suicide. Later on a journalist in the country with his wife, who has a teaching job there, stumbles on this story. He follows the threads wherever they lead and it makes for a riveting account of the people who come to Thailand to live with the people and study their lives and the missionaries who come to live with the people so they can share Christ with them.

History is an interest of mine so I read John Adams by David McCullough who is the sort of historian who can also write really well. Too bad we do not read more writers like him and fewer history textbooks in our high school history classes. The DVD made from this book is excellent, as well. I read the new biography of John Newton by Jonathan Aitken which makes Newton's life and times come alive and presents a human portrait of this great and compassionate English church leader.

The year after Teddy Roosevelt lost a third party bid for the presidency in 1912, he took off on an adventure to explore an unexplored part of the Amazon River. He almost lost his life many times over. Candace Millard, a writer for National Geographic, tells the suspenseful story and lets us see the kind of man Roosevelt was. She also gives us a National Geographic look at the wildlife and human life living along the Amazon.

Alan Jacobs wrote an exploration of the life of C. S. Lewis a couple of years ago entitled The Narnian. His newest book is a study of the history of Original Sin called by that name. Jacobs is always well worth reading.

A lot of my reading is in theology and Biblical studies. This year a study of Esther produced a discovery of two fine commentaries on this overlooked book of the Bible that has many contemporary applications. Debra Reid in the Tyndale Commentary Series and Karen Jobes in the NIV Application Series are good recent studies that complement the fine, older commentary by Joyce Baldwin. A different sort of commentary is the work of Kenneth Bailey. Bailey has spent 40 years living and teaching New Testament in the Middle East and some of that knowledge can be found in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. His insights from Middle Eastern culture challenged and deepened my understanding of the life and teaching of Jesus. I have blogged about Bailey's take on the Nativity story.

I read anything Eugene Peterson writes. Currently, he is working on a spiritual theology series. The fourth volume in the series came out this year and it is titled Tell it Slant: a conversation on the language of Jesus in his stories and prayers. Peterson is as good a guide as we have today for the Jesus way.

I have already blogged about The Lost History of Christianity and Culture-Making, two of my favorite non-fiction books of the year. Kathleen Norris, the author of several best-selling and helpful books on the spiritual life, came out with a new one called Acedia and Me: a marriage, monks, and a writers life. Not only an interesting title but a fascinating read about her life, her marriage and her struggle with acedia. Acedia is not a word widely used today even in the church. It was used in much older spiritual classics to describe one of the seven (eight) deadly sins. It has sometimes been confused with sloth and today is often masked as depression. While it shares some common ground with depression, it is a spiritual malady all its own as described by Norris who understands it intimately. She reveals much about her own struggle with acedia and in the process helped me understand my struggle with it, as well.

I don't know how N. T. Wright writes so many books and so many of them are so good. He is the pre-eminent New Testament scholar of our day. While engaging the latest issues in New Testament scholarship, most of his books are accessible to non theologically trained church members. In fact, a reading program which concentrated on his books would provide a pretty sound Biblical and theological education. One of his latest (he seems to put out one a year) books is Surprised by Hope, a study of "the last things" or eschatology and their meaning for the mission of the church. In this book, he interacts with heaven, hell, purgatory, the second coming of Christ, and how our understanding or misunderstanding of these Biblical themes affects our sense of the church's mission. We will be studying this in Sunday School beginning in January 2009. I will be blogging about each class.

Two other books I thoroughly enjoyed this year were: The Long Walk by Slovomir Rawicz and another book about a long walk called The Places in Between: A walk across Afghanistan.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Lost History of Christianity

Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Turkey - all areas of the world we have become so familiar with in the past decade. We think of most of them as Muslim and for the most part they are. But do we know that for the first thirteen hundred years after Christ, they were the hotbed of Christian expansion. Lands of vibrant Christian growth. Churches in almost every village across the Middle East. Great libraries and magnificent church art and architecture. Thousands of monasteries which produced the leading Christian scholarship in the world. These centers of learning preserved some of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible. Some of the words to our modern liturgies are dated from this era. But, unfortunately, most of the evidence of such a dynamic Christianity is all but gone. The churches, the artwork, the libraries with most of their books and manuscripts, the monasteries as well as the Christians are no longer there. It is hard to find any trace that Christianity was ever a presence there and surely not an influential one.

What happened? That is the story Philip Jenkins tells in his highly readable new book called, The Lost History of Christianity. He looks for clues to discover the reasons behind the virtual elimination (extermination) of Christianity from it's birthplace. How could a Faith so entrenched for so long over so great an area simply vanish? He tells of wave after wave of persecution, from Mongols to Muslims, until the great mass and power of Islam crushed all Christian belief. He tells of climate change (yes, it was a factor then, too), and plagues that decimated populations. And the Christian infighting among the Orthodox, Catholic, and Nestorians in the East prevented Christianity from having a unified front. The periodic corruptions within the church itself led many but the truly committed to fall away from the Faith.

It's a fascinating story with a modern twist. The Middle East is very much in the daily news today and a lot of it directly impacts us. I bet a lot of us are far more "expert" in our understanding of the Middle East than we were ten years ago! But, Jenkins allows us to draw some connections from what happened in those early years of the Christian Church in the East to

Where the early Christian church failed to put down deep roots especially among the poorer people who lived outside the great cities, it collapsed more quickly to outside pressures. By 700 the once vibrant Christianity of North Africa (St.Augustine's home) was gone while the Coptic Church in Egypt still survives to this day. The spread of Christianity in Egypt was widespread among the ordinary people of the day and it had deep roots.

As Christianity spread eastward it institutionalized. It built great church buildings and monasteries with large collections of books and manuscripts. It amassed a lot of properties. It organized itself into a hierarchy of clergy leadership. All of which made it a sitting duck for those who wanted to attack it and bring it down. Where it survived the longest is where it was more decentralized and the power was spread out among the laypeople. Church life there depended less on the institution and more on the fellowship of the Word.

Geography played a role too in the vanishing churches of the East. Invasions and wars were commonplace at that time. Some communities were prone to decline simply because they were located in the wrong place at the wrong time. The great Muslim warlord Timor wreaked massive destruction all over Asia where he exterminated whole cities in his path but he never made it to Egypt because it was out of the way.

Churches became too attached to a ruling political regime and when the regime changed so did the fortunes of the Church in that place.

But perhaps the best lesson to be learned from the collapse of Eastern Christianity is that nothing is forever. That can be taken two ways. Our successes in ministry and mission may be short lived. Congregational life is cyclical. Over a long time span. Lots of conditions conspire together to cause decline or growth in a congregation. And where Christianity has burned out or been burned out, a spark remains in the embers. Christianity in China has had four starts; the first three failed. The fourth looked like a failure too when the Communists took over in 1949. Since that date, Christianity has flourished, growing from 5 million believers to as many as 90 million today! In the tenth century, a Christian observer, noted that on a recent visit to China he could not find one Christian believer.

We can assume too much control for "our" churches and take too much credit for their successes and growth. We think all we need to do is get the right pastor, or worship leader or new technology and we can grow this thing called a church. Or, we take too much blame for the decline of a church. If only, we had done this or that.... God is still in control of this thing. His ways are mysterious and all our expertise is not all that valuable but what is - is a long obedience in the right direction - to use a title from one of Eugene Peterson's books.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How Did the Innkeeper Get Into the Christmas Story?

How did the innkeeper get into the Christmas story? It's time to celebrate Christmas again and it gets harder and harder to separate what really happened when Jesus was born from the layers of storytelling we have added to the Biblical account. For some of us Santa and the reindeer and all the rest of That Story are just fun, and for others annoying, but we don't attach any significance to it. It is more of a distraction to our celebration of Christmas than a meaningful part of it ( for some people that is ALL there is to Christmas but that is for another blog). But, how much of our traditional celebration of Christmas is more fantasy than reality. We have all seen our share of Christmas pageants and we know the parts better than we know the Bible. How does a cruel innkeeper get into the Christmas story? Was Jesus born in a cave, a stable, or a home? Why couldn't Joseph find any place in Bethlehem, his home town, to stay for the census? Was Jesus born the same night his parents arrived in Bethlehem? In a cold, inhospitable, stable surrounded only by animals? Why did the shepherds come?And if they found Jesus and his family shivering around a manger in a stable, why didn't they think to help out this poor family?

Kenneth Bailey, who lived and taught New Testament for forty years in the Middle East, sheds light on our traditional misinterpretations of the Nativity story and when we look at these blessed events from a Middle Eastern perspective they look a little different from what we may be used to.

Joseph was going to his ancestral home when he journeyed to Bethlehem. He was taking his betrothed wife who was pregnant with their first child. There may have been some family talk about how all this came about but he surely had family and friends in town he could call on. He had time to arrange a place to stay, too. Our idea of the holy family making a long trip and finding no place to stay, including being turned away cruelly from the local inn, so baby Jesus had to be born in a cold stable welcomed by no other people, only animals, is not true to the customs and culture of the world into which he was born. Mary had family close by too (Luke 1:39) so if Joseph's relations did not come through, certainly, Mary's would have. Besides, Joseph was from a royal family. He was descended from the great King David. Bethlehem was known as the "city of David". Another good reason why he would have found little difficulty locating a place to stay.

Nearly all village homes in that day were two room dwellings. One was the family living space and the other was a guest room. The family stayed together and at night the family's valued animals were brought inside for warmth (the family's warmth!) and protection. Usually, the animals were separated by a makeshift wall from the family sleeping area. The "inn" in town was actually a guest room in the home Joseph was going to stay at. The presence of a cruel innkeeper and the tradition that Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for his family in the inn (Luke 2:7) can be attributed to the English translation of a word that simply means "a space". In our Western reading of the English text our minds naturally think of a large hotel with plenty of rooms and by the time Mary and Joseph got there the no vacancy sign was already out. There is another Greek word Luke uses in the Good Samaritan story that means a commercial inn but the word he uses here is "katalyma" which means "a place to stay." Luke uses that word to describe the upper room where Jesus ate the last supper with his disciples (Luke 22:10-12). It commonly meant a guest room in a family home. So, is Luke telling us that Jesus was placed in a manger in the living area of a village home because their guest room was already occupied? Because the animals were kept in the house at night, there was a manger dug out in the floor at one end of the room. When Jesus was born, he was laid in the manger. Given the obligation of hospitality in this part of the world, the birth of Jesus makes more sense when we know he was welcomed into the world as any other baby would have been.

Jesus was born in the style of most of the people in his world. He was welcomed by the common people of the village. The obligation of hospitality in that part of the world ensured that any baby would be welcomed. Jesus was welcomed before anyone knew who he was. He was named Jesus which was a common Palestinian name (Hebrew = Joshua) which means "he saves". Many mothers hoped their newborn son would be the God sent Savior of their people.

Since God could have had his son born into any family he chose, it is significant that he was born into a poor family of which there were many. Jesus was not born to privilege or power. To take this theme of common people one step further, there was no group more common than shepherds. Because of their dirty jobs and low reputation, they were looked down on by everyone. How ironic that they were the ones to witness the full angelic chorus and get the first invitation to the birth day. The 'sign" to them was that the baby was "one of them", poor and common, since he was wrapped in "cloths" and lying in a "manger"! Certainly not a birth with rich or royal trappings. One the shepherds felt comfortable attending! So they did. But they were not uncaring rubes and if they had felt that Jesus and family were not properly cared for, they would have offered to take them in! Finding them adequately provided for, they went on their way,praising and glorifying God for all they had seen and heard.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Holiday Stress

Most of us look forward to the holidays. Maybe that is part of the problem. We have expectations that will most likely go unfulfilled. Holidays amplify the tensions that are already present in our lives, our stressed lives. If you are having relationship problems, work problems or financial problems, you can bet holidays will add to the stress. It's no secret life these days is stressful. Add to the normal stress of life our current national problems and this holiday time has the potential to be one we might want to reschedule. Of course, we can't. So what can we do to deal with the stress. Here are some ideas I have found helpful.

Keep it simple. No big plans. Perhaps stay home and keep some time free to do nothing. If you do have guests over or special holiday activities planned, think: what is the minimum I have to do to carry this off. It is good to get together with people you enjoy over the holidays so plan to do that but keep those gatherings simple: a pot of soup, or just coffee or tea. Since holidays often involve gatherings with people we are not getting along with very well, keep your expectations low. Relationship miracles are good for holiday TV but they rarely happen in real life. Plan accordingly. As football coach Bill Parcells used to say when he was questioned about the poor performance of his team: "It is what it is." At times some of the primary relationships in our lives are performing poorly, too. If this is one of those times, repeat the mantra, " it is what it is", and make the best of it.

Keep your eating under control. There are different and special foods during the holidays and we are more tempted to indulge ourselves. Don't. You know how it makes you feel afterward. It only adds stress. Keep your meal plans similar to the way you usually eat. Don't eat out often. Don't go to parties hungry. Fill up on salads (watch the dressings) and water. If you have to have a dessert, try stopping at a bite or two. Wait a few minutes. It satisfies your need for a sweet the same as if you gulped down the whole thing.

Watch your budget if you have one and make one if you don't. There is very little that is worth buying if it will put you into more debt. Figure out how much you can afford to spend without charging more than you can pay off by the end of the year. Live within that amount. If someone will be miffed because you didn't spend more on them, they will get over it. More importantly, you will have avoided the huge stressor of debt. Don't let the holidays add to your family debt.

Exercise. Get a walk in as often as you can. Join a gym over the holidays. Treat yourself to a couple weeks with a personal exercise trainer. What a great Christmas present. Exercise is a proven stress reliever.

Pray. In the busyness of the holiday season, we tend to put off the most important things to make time for least important things. Get up a little earlier so you have time to pray. Read through some of the Psalms, or the early chapters of the Gospels that focus on the birth of Jesus. See your pastor for ideas about devotional readings for this time of year. Better yet, make an appointment to see your pastor for a spiritual checkup! Don't miss worship. Holiday worship services pull us away from so much that is shallow and superficial about the holidays and point us to the meaningful and significant.

Rest. Make sure you get to bed early to get enough sleep. Experts tell us that we need 8 hours a night although most of us get by with far less. "Get by" barely and others notice our irritability. Holiday stress is much easier to handle if we are rested.

Spend time with people that you enjoy being with. There are people that drain us and people that energize us. Often the demands and obligations of life make it impossible to avoid the people that drain us and we are too tired to plan time to be with those people that energize us. Make the time. Meet for a lunch or coffee (although watch the caffeine - too much is a stressor too!).

Laugh. Does anything reduce stress like laughter? Often the people who energize us are people we can laugh with. But even in the hardest circumstances we face, we can find something to laugh at. Like the popular book says: don't sweat the small stuff and it is all small stuff.

One last thought. Each of us has a lot of control over the way we feel. People can only make us feel bad if we let them have that kind of control over us. Situations can make us feel sad if we dwell on them. Life is not usually the way we want it to be or think we want it to be. It is much less stressful to live life the way it is and not romanticize about how much better it could be. And how bad things are because it is not turning out the way we hoped it would. Let go of the "if onlys". It is what it is. And we can thank God in, not for, but in all circumstances.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I'll call him Fred. No one really knew his name or cared to know him. He was homeless even though he had a small room in an old building that had at one time been Secretary of State William Seward's property. Now it was home to several bums as the locals referred to them. I can't remember how our family got hooked up with Fred but we did and he came over for meals and even for Thanksgiving dinner one year. He mumbled a lot and he smelled and he never talked about himself or stayed long. I would visit him from time to time in his room. That was how I found him dead. One day I knocked and knocked and not getting any response I went to get the building caretaker who opened his door. We found him on his bed. Dead for a week was the best guess but no one spent much time investigating. The city paid for a pauper's grave and I gathered a few people from our church to attend a graveside service and we buried him with dignity and the gospel. I never had any idea where he came from, or what his life had been like, or who his family was.

His story came to mind as I was preparing a sermon on Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. It has always been a favorite yet unsettling text. The interpretation of it hinges on how you understand two phrases. The first is "all the nations" in verse 32 and the second is "the least of these" in verse 40. If "all the nations"refers to everyone except Christians and if "the least of these"refers to needy Christians, then this parable of judgment is easier to swallow because it's not about us, Christians. However, if the first phrase includes Christians and the second phrase includes anyone who is hungry, naked, sick, in prison or a stranger, then we need to sit up and take it more seriously. I have always believed the proper interpretation was the latter one. I don' think Jesus' intent was to put us at ease. He is the one who also said, " If you are going to follow me, die to yourself and take up your cross and then follow me."

This story seems to me to be about Following Christ. What it means to follow Christ. That was, after all, one of the main themes of his teaching. This story fits into his End of the World, the End Times, and the Last Judgment teaching. It seems pretty plain that he intended to say that all people will be judged based on whether we follow Him or not. Following Christ is not an optional activity for human beings. So here in his story - it is his Ministry to the Least, the Lost and the Left Out - that we are expected to follow.

Fred fit all those categories. No doubt Jesus would have made time for Fred. It is not too surprising that Jesus tells us to make time for the Freds of the world. What is surprising is that he tells us that when we do - we run right smack dab into him. Jesus. We find Jesus already there.

"Come", he says in verse 34, "Come into the Kingdom of God." He is not talking about some pie in the sky place where we go when we die. It is a place we can go to here. It is the Most Real Place we can go to here. It is more real than most of what we call the real world. You enter it like C.S.Lewis's Land of Narnia, which serves as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God in his tales, through a door that we find by following Christ.

It is clear that Jesus is talking to Christians here in verse 34 but the next couple verses are Unlike our usual descriptions of the Christian life. Nothing about going to church, singing hymns, teaching Sunday School or playing on the church softball team. What we do In Church is Important but it is not the most Important thing. It is not as Important as what we do out there in the world. That is where we witness to the Reality of what Really Is. The Kingdom of God. There is nothing too radical in America about going to church. In fact, in some parts of the country it is still the expected thing to do on Sunday morning. But Who the Church is and What it does - now that's radical. And it can cause people to wonder, What are you doing? Why? Who are you Following? Who do you Belong to? Then, they have a chance to make a choice, too. It is a critical choice because as the story says, there will be a great separation at the end of history and which side we are on will be based on that choice.

So back to Fred and Jesus. Jesus never says Come to Church and you will find me there. I think you can find Jesus there. I pray that is so. We expect Jesus to be there. He is in the preaching of the word, the praises of the people, the celebration of the Lord's Supper and the fellowship of the Body of Christ. It's just that he never says Follow me to church. He never says when you visit the church you visit me. But he does say that about visiting the prisoner or the sick. He does say when you feed the hungry or clothe the naked... I am there. It's not just that we do these things for Jesus, for his sake, but he says as we do these things for the Least, the Lost and the Left Out we are doing them to him.

What he says in these verses is clear as a bell and very surprising. Note: Jesus does not say, "I was sick and you healed me... or I was in prison and you set me free... or I was all messed up and you fixed me". The thing I like about what he says here is that it is something we all can do! These are Small Ministries for All of Us. Small ministries of visiting, clothing, hospitality and feeding. Nothing spectacular and showy. In fact, they are almost mundane. But it is through these small ministries that the Miracle of Jesus' presence occurs.

Dr Henrietta Mears taught that "every person we meet is dying for a drop of love." There are as many human needs as there are human beings. Basic needs NEED small deeds of Basic help. That's what the gospels show us Jesus did. That's what Following Him means.

That's what Fred taught me.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Ben Stein is best known as a comic and an actor (Ferris Bueller). He is also on TV with economic commentary and an occasional commercial pitch. To some he would seem an unlikely choice to host a documentary on the conflict between science and religion. Or, more particularly, evolutionism and intelligent design. ID (intelligent design) is the theory that human life is so complex it points to an intelligence greater than our own as "creator". It's a plausible idea for many people. Except among certain scientists. It bucks the scientific political correctness that only allows one theory to explain human origins and that is Darwin's theory of evolution. The scientific community is so closed to other possibilities that the mere hint of a thought of intelligent design in a scientist's head can get him or her fired from the university where he or she teaches or the scientific organisation for which he or she works. That is the situation that got Stein interested in looking into ID and why it is so threatening to the scientific community.

Why, exactly? Stein interviews scientists who have been fired for their heretical statements regarding ID and scientists who ridicule those statements. He asks what is ID and why is it so threatening. Is it a right wing Christian conspiracy? Is it creationism trying to sneak in the back door? Stein, who is Jewish, doesn't think so. In fact, Stein is equally interested in Darwin and the evolutionary theory he came up with. He visits Darwin's home/museum and follows the train of this thought to Hitler and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In one hospital used by the Nazis to exterminate "inferior human beings", he finds traces of the doctrine of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. It was a laboratory for Hitler's new race of superior human beings. Darwin's theories were fleshed out in America during the eugenics craze after WW2 when thousands of "inferior" human beings were sterilized.

As Stein follows the evolutionary thread that started with the denial of academic freedom to some scientists who harbor heretical thoughts of ID, he winds up face to face with some of the most prominent atheists of our day. Here is where Stein answers his question about why ID is so threatening. It threatens the scientific orthodoxy that says God can have no place in scientific inquiry. This is a new orthodoxy for older scientific greats labored from a faith foundation summed up in the expression," thinking God's thoughts after him." Today, that is heresy. ID is so threatening that every hint of it must be extinguished because it could be a way for God to sneak back into science. This is untenable for many of the leading scientist/atheists of the day. One leading scientist from Cornell tells Stein that if one follows Darwinism out to all its implications, one of those is atheism. There is no God, no afterlife, no meaning or purpose to our lives. As someone who was raised in a religious home, he accepts this as the consequence of his quest for scientific truth. It is one of the most chilling moments of the film.

As Stein sat in the field where once there had been a Nazi concentration camp, he posed a question to another one of the experts he was interviewing. Do you think Hitler was insane, he asked. No, the expert said, I think in his own mind Hitler thought he was doing good. In their own minds, I am sure the scientific establishment thinks it is doing good, too, as it shuts down dialogue about ID. But as Stein posits in the film, if science is the quest for truth, what are they afraid of?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Small Churches

Small churches don't get a lot of credit in our country. Bigger is better here, always. Big box stores get way more press than mom and pop operations, if you can even find them anymore (we are fortunate to have a few in Kodiak). We have small churches here, too. People in Kodiak are kinda stuck with them because if they are going to go to church they can't drive somewhere else where there is a big church. Big churches are all the rage in the lower 48. They have the latest audio and video technology, cushy stadium seating, entertaining speakers and music, state of the art childcare, parking attendants, cafeterias, bookstores, and cool websites with their own pod casts. Small church facilities often have a worn out look; they depend on volunteers for everything from childcare to youth ministry to worship leading to lawn care, the preaching is enthusiastic (at best) to boring (at worst) and more often than not, unpolished. Budgets are bare bones so a lot of things that need replacing just get reused. Schedules are flexible and you can't really depend on things running on time, if they run at all. I can see why so many people are attracted to big. Big stores where choice is high and price is low and big churches where choice is supreme, too, and it seems like you get a lot more for your money.

Funny thing though is that most big churches know that the life of their big church is found in the small groups in the church. Big churches are really made up of lots of very small churches. Which makes sense. If small churches in small places like Kodiak "teamed" up more we could share a lot of resources and provide more for our people. Unfortunately, there is usually more competition than cooperation among small churches in small places.

However, the good news for small churches is that usually good things come in small packages. MySpace, the first enormously popular social network site, had 200 million users worldwide in 2007. Yet, the average number of "friends" for a user is a small number: 67. Given the generous definition of 'friend" as anyone from a good friend to someone you might recognize on the street but might not, this number constitutes an average person's social network. And it is pretty small. In fact, MySpace and other social network sites are "collections of small networks of people." ( Culture Making by Andy Crouch, 242). So are big churches. So are small churches. Crouch makes the point that people making a difference in culture are small groups of people. He says: "every cultural innovation no matter how far-reaching its consequences is based on personal relationships and personal commitments." A small group of people is almost always enough! Jesus had his core group of 3; his larger group of disciples numbered 12; at Pentecost 120 were gathered waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. That's good news. In small churches we often feel overwhelmed and under resourced. If only we were bigger then God could use us to accomplish big things. Yet, Crouch illustrates that many of our greatest innovations started from a small group: Google began with 3 people.

We all have our 3 and probably our 12 and we may even go to a church of around 120. Here is how Crouch puts it: "your 3 are the people you know and trust and you share a passion and commitment with. Your 12 is the larger circle of good friends you could call on in a time of need. Your 120 are contacts who would respond to something compelling and worthwhile if you put out the word. In the small church, your 3 could be your prayer group, your 12 your small group or a church committee on which you serve and the 120 could be the whole church!

So who are your 3? Crouch says that is the most important question for your calling. Who are the few people you trust enough to risk creating something together?

"The quest for 3, the recognition that all culture making is local, the willingness to start and end small, all seem to me to be the only approaches to culture making that do justice to the improbable story of God....Christian culture making a matter of community" - and I would add small communities. Small communities can do a lot. They can do what is necessary in the places God has put them. They can make a difference where they are.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


This week Kodiak voted down a new school because it would entail an increase in property taxes. Housing is already expensive here. As one young couple said to me, "We can't afford a house now so why would I vote to make it more expensive?" We don't have a huge tax burden here like say someone from New York does (where I am from) which leads the US in tax burdens. But, lots of other things are much more expensive here than New York.

From Kodiak, this week, we could see the continuing market meltdown. No one seems to know what to do. It has put a scare into a lot of people. Some are pulling their money out of the market. Some see a conspiracy by the government to take control of our financial institutions. Some see plain old fashioned greed coming home to roost. But, when the average person watches his or her retirement lose 30% to 40% of its value from just one year ago, it is cause for concern and considering alternative plans.

I remembered this week when we lived in Philadelphia in the early 80s. We were part of a Christian community. Most of us owned our own homes. They were in a part of the city where housing was very cheap and we bought a row house that needed a lot of work. People helped each other out working on their homes. We bought food cooperatively. We shared cars so not every family needed one. We met for Bible study during the week and worship on Sunday in a rented space at a community center. We worked together on mission projects like making sure a nearby apartment building had heat for it's elderly residents. It was located right down the street from where our church met and the first time I visited one of the elderly tenants there was a thick block of ice which had formed on her window sill. She sat in a chair covered in blankets. We managed to draw attention to the problem and it was fixed.

It was not perfect. No community is. We always had personal issues to sort out. But I wonder if this financial crisis - if it is long lasting - will make alternative communities like that one more attractive. Most of us are used to very independent living. We are used to having plenty of choices and options moment by moment. We don't like to have someone or something "cramp our lifestyle". Most of us were looking forward to enjoying our retirement doing what we always thought we wanted to do, whatever that is.

Soaring energy prices which impact the cost of just about everything else have taken more of each paycheck. Now our future paychecks which we have been saving for are dwindling daily. Seems like we need a plan.

Kodiak is not Philadelphia but some of the principles translate pretty well. We could have a potluck and Bible study once a week. We could buy staples in bulk and break them down to share with each family unit every month. We could share fish during the summer months. We could have a storage shed filled with a variety of tools that members could borrow when needed and return. We could have a church vehicle that was available to be loaned out in emergencies. Shared housing is another area we might explore. The parsonage, for instance, could be made into two living units and rented to members. We might acquire other property or use an area of the church building for short term shelter.

This may just be some thinking out loud on my part. It would not be easy to make some of these changes. But some people are already hurting. If the financial downturn is long lasting, more people will be soon. As I read the Bible, we are a dependent people, on God; and an interdependent people, on each other. I don't read much about independence. Do you?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Great Bailout

Tonight the Senate votes on The Bailout #2. Many Americans are up in arms about it. There are good reasons to feel anger at the indulgences and excesses of the Big investment houses and banks. However, not passing this Bailout (an unfortunate name for what is a financial rescue operation that will benefit all of us) will have a grave impact on us all as we try to get credit or we try to retire on funds that are dwindling by the day. Monday's no vote led by conservative Republicans in the house has already caused great fear and panic, especially among the elderly. There was no need for it. It is surprising that God favored bailouts in the Old Testament. Debt was not something sinful but it was seen as part of life and God's People were to be quick to make loans to those who needed them. In Deuteronomy 15:7-10, God's Word says: If there is a poor man among your brothers ... do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: 'The seventh year, for canceling debts is near' so that you do not show him ill will and give him nothing. He may appeal to the Lord against you and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all you do..." This is quite an amazing text. It refers to the "seventh year" in which all debts were canceled.

In the Old Testament God's People are urged often to loan freely to foreigners (interest bearing) and to fellow Israelites (interest free). These were hard times and poor harvests, bad weather, or raiding enemies could imperil small family farms and the small family living off the farm. The debtor was to be treated compassionately. Indebtedness was taken seriously and the debtor was responsible to repay. However, every seventh year (the seventh seven year period was called the Year of Jubilee) all obligations were canceled whether the debtor deserved such compassionate treatment or not. It seems like God was concerned that a permanent debtor class not be allowed to form in Israel. The family unit needed to be secure and economically stable. That was God's will. Besides interest free loans, God's laws provided for a tithe for the poor (Dt. 14:28-29) and gleaning (Dt. 24:19).

Now it is true that these "debtor laws" were meant to sustain poor farmers down on their luck and not commercial businesses. But the underlying principle is: Debt can be canceled if it achieves a greater good. The question can be asked: what greater good is achieved when a bunch of unscrupulous debtors and lenders get off the hook. Still, there are a great many people who are paying a huge price - and will keep paying - because of the economic malpractice of others. As it was in the simpler Old Testament times so it is today: no good comes from greater insecurity and more economic instability in the family home.

Debt in the Old Testament was neither good nor bad. It is a result of the very precarious conditions of life. God's concern was that "there be no poor among you." Some would say the impending Bailout is going to make some rich people richer and not penalize the guilty parties in this banking crisis for their malpractice. However, it seems certain that a great many others will be made poorer and much unneeded stress will be added to hard working families if this Bailout is not passed.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Market Mess

Can anyone explain what just happened? The past couple of weeks, I mean. The Dow Jones goes into meltdown and headlines predict a global economic collapse. Banks are failing and large investment firms go bankrupt. Ordinary people are wondering if their savings will be there when they wake up the next day. Then, the government steps in and bails out the whole stinking mess. Then the stock market soars for two days and the experts say the problem is fixed. Now Congress is debating the bailout plan while investors are jittery and the stock market jumps up but mostly down. Some financial pundits caution us to consider the proverb: pay now or pay later. I get the Wall Street Journal and have tried to follow what is going on but it is beyond me and I expect anyone else without a PH.D in economics. Although there is sure no shortage of economic experts on CNN, MSNBC and FNC who try to convince us they know what is going on. They talk for a living and they are paid to talk as long as their show is on so the longer they talk the faster they run out of things to say. Here is what I do know: God owns the cattle on a thousand hills; that's what the Bible says. That means He owns it all. He is not affected by sub prime mortgages defaulting or oil speculators or short selling and all the other words for greed in our present day vocabulary. What I have is a gift from him. My trust is in Him, not the stock market. I am called to be a good steward of what He has given to me. That means use credit wisely which means not just for stuff I think I want at the moment. Save for big ticket items. Pay off the credit card every month. Don't go into debt (even though our government does - there is a payday due some day). Tithe and trust God for what you need. Invest in kingdom work where the returns are heavenly. Save for a rainy day but don't get hung up on watching the daily DJA and beware the so-called experts on the aforementioned cable news shows! Be thankful for what you have. In Haiti, people get by with lots less and no government crutches to help them out. Invest in Haiti and other poor places (Luke 16:9) because that is the right thing to do. Don't worry about the ups and downs of the global economy (Matthew 6). That's God's word which makes a whole lot more sense than the words of most of the financial experts spewing forth from the various media sources today.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sarah Palin: An Easterners Point of View

From the For What It Is Worth Department: here is my take on Sarah Palin. I have lived out in New York State for most of my life and I have heard from friends out East this past week wondering what I think of Sarah Palin. I have lived in Alaska almost ten years which is not a long time but I guess it qualifies me, in some eyes, to have an informed point of view. Here is what you need to know about the East. Easterners think the country (world?) revolves around them. Notice how everything is based on EST. They think anyone living west of - say New York City - is culturally deprived. So Alaska is way out there. They think it is located somewhere west of Seattle out in the Pacific Ocean because that is where it is found on most maps. In fact, a lot of maps like those weather maps in most Eastern papers don't even show Alaska! How can they leave someplace so huge off the map? Out of sight, out of mind. Some Easterners think Alaska is a foreign country. Do you need a passport to get in? They ask. For most Easterners Alaska might as well be a foreign country. They have never been here and probably never will. Why should they? It snows all the time, people live in igloos and polar bears are a constant threat to life. They think ANWAR is a state park sorta like the Adirondack State Park in New York and they would not want oil companies mucking that up with their drilling so why should they allow drilling there. In general, they have no clue why anyone would want to live out here unless they had to. Alaska is a nice place for some people to visit; maybe it would be a good idea to keep it as a National Park because no one in their right mind would ever want to live there. Most Easterners are surprised to learn about PFDS: the state government actually pays people to live there. They are amazed. They are equally amazed when they hear that the state gets more federal dollars percapita than any other state. They don't know that the federal government owns most of the state. The only things they know about Alaska's congressmen is that there are only two and they are old. One more thing: they are angry old men (probably because they have to live in Alaska).

So when Sarah Palin came to the attention of the national media last week it was understandable that they were incredulous. Can anything good come out of Alaska? They quickly answered No! McCain's vetting committee let him down. He could not have known what he was getting into. His judgement is suspect. He was led astray. You see, no one knew her but they knew one thing about her: she was from Alaska. They expected her to show up in mukluks and gnawing on the jawbone of a moose. Her husband is a world champion snow machiner ( Easterners call them snowmobiles). Her 17 year old daughter is pregnant already (see what happens when you preach abstinence only education). She did get some high marks for actually practicing her Pro-Life convictions and carrying a Downs Syndrome baby full term when it is not a common practice today.

So I didn't expect Sarah Palin to translate very well into Eastern. But even I was surprised at the nasty and unrelenting negativity. She was unknown but her instant media critics thought they knew her. She was from a small town and a small state ( surely her critics know how Big Alaska is) so she must be small minded. She had no experience; she had only governed for 2 years and that was in a small state ( being mayor of Wasilla didn't count). She was only chosen because she is an attractive woman. How could she possibly govern with 5 kids ( Mitt Romney has 5 kids and I don't recall anyone making that point about him). Even our own Anchorage Daily News piled on this week printing editorials and comments from people who thought the people who favored her addition to the Republican ticket had taken leave of their senses. I guess they want to be taken seriously by the Eastern media elite. There were lots of Eastern reporters up here last week and they didn't want to appear uncritical in their evaluation of Palin. With polls showing Palin's popularity rate at over 80% it must be tough to find enough negative opinions to fill an editorial page.

So as I watched Palin's acceptance speech at the Republican convention Wednesday night, I couldn't keep from smiling. Although, I choked up a time or two like when she told special needs families they had a friend in the White House if she gets there. She demonstrated what a gifted speaker she is who can really connect with people. I checked out some of the media responses afterward. Keith Olbermann on MSNBC was his usual insufferably, pompous self noting that her tone seemed overly harsh and asking if this was going to be indicative of the campaign. Fred Barnes on Fox said what most everyone else was thinking: She has it all! She was poised and not intimidated in the least. She showed what a lot of Alaskans already knew. Alaskan experience builds character. She is a perfect running mate for McCain. She is a straight shooter, too, and she doesn't really care what the self professed cultural elites out East think.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


A couple weeks ago my wife and I headed south to Oregon for a missions conference. It had been awhile since I had been to one and I wanted to get updated on what was going on in missions in our denomination. It was billed as the Northwest regional conference. There was one in the Midwest and the East, as well. First impressions: First, our upper middle aged selves were among the youngest attendees which caused some concern and the turnout from the Northwest was pretty poor which either meant the Northwest cares less for missions or there are fewer churches to draw from (most of the attendees seemed to be from Oregon); Second, there seemed to be a whole lot of cheer leading for missions going on from the denom admin folk which was a cause for concern cus if they were anxious about the missions program of the denom what were we supposed to do about it; this was reinforced by the missions offerings that were taken at every meeting; Third, there seems to be a requirement that every time you have a church meeting today you have to have a worship band and contemporary music. This was the case here and I had a thought that the composition of this audience was mostly the group of people who had fought the worship battles in their churches .... and lost.

Second Impressions: By the time we got around to the content of the missions conference, ie, the reason we were there, things had improved. There are some deeply committed people who are open to God using them to make a difference in the part of the world they serve. There was a woman working with young men and women caught up in the trafficking of bodies for sex and/or work in Asia. There was a couple working in a seminary in war torn Lebanon. There was a couple training pastors in Costa Rica and a man doing the same in Congo. They all had fascinating stories to tell about what God was doing in their lands. This was why we came and we wished for more of it. But what we got was a push for short term mission trips. It must be harder to get people to commit to a full time career in missions today or maybe the money isn't there to support them. Surely, the offerings that were taken were not going to solve this problem.

Final Impressions: It was hard not to leave with the impression that missions in the mainline church and perhaps American Christianity is a sideshow. Mainline denoms are dying and the megachurches are too self absorbed. Missions is what we are doing with the leftovers. As was evidenced at this conference missions today is still a heroic work at the heart of God. It is the lifeblood of the local church and if missions is going to be revitalized it will not be the big denoms that do it but it will be the local church. I remember hearing when I was younger that the church exists for missions like a fire exists for burning. We need a fire for missions rekindled in our local churches.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

All Eyes on China

Most of us have heard by now that one of the big reasons we are paying more at the gas pump is China. China's economy is booming and so it's energy needs are booming, as well. The world's demand for oil is not meeting it's ability to supply. China's growth in the past decade is truly incredible. Consider: China has four times more people than America; since 1978 China's economy has grown over 9% annually (in 1978 China made 200 air conditioners - in 2005 it made 48 million!); Pudong, China's main financial district is about the size of Chicago; Chongqing is the world's fastest growing city adding 300,000 people a year (the 20 fastest growing cities in the world are in China); to prepare for the Olympics Beijing has built six new subway lines, a 43 KM light rail system, and a new airport terminal that is now the world's largest; China is the largest producer of coal, steel and cement in the world; it is the largest cell phone market in the world; it has more square feet of space under construction than anywhere else in the world (5x more than the US); it's exports to the US have grown 1,600% over the past 15 years; it manufactures 2/3 of the world's photocopiers, microwaves, dvd players and shoes (Walmart alone imports 18 billion dollars worth of goods from China every year); by2010 Starbucks will have more cafes in China than the US. Today, Fareed Zakaria says, "China is the world's largest country, fastest growing major economy, largest manufacturer, second largest consumer, largest saver, and second largest military spender." (The Post-American World, p.92)

If all eyes are not on China yet, they will be in August when China hosts the Summer Olympic Games. Some American Olympians have thought about boycotting the Olympics this summer due to China's awful human rights record. For all its emphasis on public relations for the upcoming Olympic Games, China is still one of the world's greatest human rights violators. Christians, especially, are targets. China's state government controls what happens in China. If it says you may only have one child, you only have one child or face the consequences. If it tells you to move because a major employer wants to build on the property you and all your neighbors live on, you move or face the consequences. If it tells you to register your house church with the state controlled church, you register or face the consequences. Many non-registered Christians and house churches have been persecuted. Pastors are arrested and sent off to hard labor for "re-education".

That's why a prominent house church leader has asked Christians in the US and throughout the free world to remember to pray for China during the Olympics. China Aid has a helpful website to keep up with what is happening as far as persecution of Christians goes ( They are offering bracelets to be worn during the Olympics as a reminder to pray. These bracelets are being offered in China, as well, so our brothers and sisters in Christ can pray for us, too. You can order then on the China Aid website. I ordered mine today.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July 4th

This week we celebrate the birth of our country, again. I will confess to being more impressed with a day off than the celebration of our nation's birthday in the past. Not this year. I have done some reading about events of 1776 and I am approaching July 4th differently this year. I have read David McCullough's 1776 and his later volume on John Adams and my wife and I have just finished viewing the HBO series on John Adams on DVD. I recommend both the reading and the viewing. I came away with the overwhelming sense THIS SHOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED! This country, I mean. In the midst of an impending war with the strongest military power at the time, a small group of ordinary people risked their all to declare our independence and usher in a whole new government - the likes of which had never been seen before! It is an amazing story. One surely worth more than the few paragraphs most high school history texts give it. More than one of our founding fathers saw God's hand in it. For if He was not involved how could this thing have happened? George Washington called it a "miracle". The later historian Joseph Ellis (American Creation, 2007) does not want to believe this and comes up with a rational explanation. But his historical analysis does not detract from the fact that people who were there, who were living it, called it nothing short of miraculous and gave the credit to God (Washington, and Adams, at least). If you don't have time to read these books or watch the DVD this week, you might at least read the Declaration out loud and the list of signers who put their names on the line knowing that if they were caught they would be hanged as traitors. If you have a family, what a great exercise in citizenship to read it aloud as a family. Then pray for our country, thankfully, for what God did then and with petitions for what God needs to do now. As Adams prayed, let freedom which was gained by the sacrifices of so many, ring true today.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Good Reading

I am asked to recommend books at times ( to be candid, not all that often). If I mention a book in a sermon, I am usually asked for more biographical information after the sermon ( to be candid, by one or two people, only). My wife and I share reading lists and pass books back and forth. I have a couple pastor friends who pass on good titles they have read and are interested in what I am reading. One of my sons is always looking for good reading and has taken a number of my suggestions and now he is suggesting good books for me to read, too. In sum, it seems to me that too many Christians do not read good books ( or any books!) and that, I find, there are too many good books and not enough time to read them or to even be aware of them! In the event that someone might want to know what good books I recommend, I thought it would be fun to blog about a list.

For those interested in spiritual theology (which sounds daunting and what I mean by that is anyone who wants to think deeply about life as spiritual) I would point them to any book by Eugene Peterson. For pastors, especially, I testify that he has saved my life. I mean I could not have survived pastoral ministry without his writings. I also recommend anything by Dallas Willard, Confessions by Saint Augustine, C. S. Lewis's books and the long trail of reading that reading Peterson and Willard put you on.

One thing Peterson taught me long ago is that everyone needs a theologian, every pastor, for sure. Good theologians help you to think Biblically about everything. Karl Barth is the one I have chosen and over the years have read his works ( and am reading his works which are massive!). In his writings are an entire education in church history, and Biblical exposition, as well as, theology, and all at the intersection of culture. Eberhard Busch on Barth's life is very good, too.

Writers of Biblical commentaries are many and never ending. I have purchased way too many and most of them are gathering dust on my shelves. I like a commentary that does solid exegesis and then interacts with real life and church issues, past and present. Frederick Dale Bruner's commentary on Matthew (two volumes) does that and is my favorite. It is a commentary for pastors but it is equallty accessible for a layperson who wants to study God's word. I like Genesis commenaries because Genesis is the beginning of everything we are, as human beings made in the image of God. Its all in there. Bruggeman, von Rad, Thelicke ( on the first chapters, only) and Wanderings, a history of the Jews, by Chaim Potok are good guides. Bruggeman and Peterson on 1 and 2 Samuel and Ian Provan on 1 and 2 Kings bring insight and understanding to the OT historical period and show us why that's important for us to this day. The Psalms are meant for our daily reading and prayer. Peterson, Bruggeman and Lewis have helpful studies on portions of the Psalter. There are many good commentaries on the prophets: John Bright on Jeremiah and don't miss Peterson's smaller volume on the same book, and Elizabeth Achtemeier is a good name to know as she has written well on a number of the prophets. An OT book that I overlooked for a long time is Esther and Karen Jobes has helped me to see why this book should not be overlooked today.

In the New Testament, there are names like Raymond Brown on John, Gordon Fee on Corinthians and Philippians, Marcus Barth on Ephesians, and Peterson and Eugene Boring (exactly the wrong name for a commentary writer!) on Revelation.

I will never understand why many Christians see fiction as a waste of time. We love stories and novels are just good stories. Novelists are keen observers of human life, as well, and help us understand ourselves and this life we live in - and some help us get pointed to God, too. How can someone go through life and not read Dostoyevsky? Get started in fiction. Read Books and Culture, a review of current books that comes out six times a year. They have some great suggestions. Check out the NY Times book review section. Get a list of the novels considered classics and start reading.

Finally, for now, there are some authors that are able to show how Christianity makes sense today. It is not that they answer all our questions for they know that all our questions are not all answerable. It is Christian faith, after all. But, they deftly illustrate how sensible our faith is. Phil Yancey is one writer who immediately comes to mind. Read whatever he has written. C. S. Lewis, of course, too. Earl Palmer, Leslie Newbigin, Miroslov Volf... and don't bypass a surprising new book by first time author William Young called The Shack.

I love reading history, especially biography, too, and I wish I had had history teachers who taught the way some of our current writers of history write. Alan Jacobs has written a wonderful biography of Lewis called the Narnian. Malcolm Muggeridge reports on a life of reporting in Chronicles of Wasted Time and the slim volume three is the story of his late life Christian conversion. New understandings of the exciting ( and not to be taken for granted) birth of our country are many in the books by David McCullough. Read Paul Johnson. On church history there is Mark Noll and George Marsden. (to be continued)

Friday, June 13, 2008


We are recently returned from Hawaii. It is a place I told my wife I would never want to go. Living on an island, as we do, it was not my idea of vacation to visit another island. Oh, but what an island! I was wrong, very wrong. We chose the Big Island for our first vacation trip to Hawaii. I hope it will not be our last. It was delightful: the warm weather, the fruit, the flowers, the smells, the Kona coffee, the vast black fields of old lava flows, the aloha spirit, etc. If relaxing is what vacations are all about, it was the best ever. We stayed at a nice resort on the water, right on the water. Even though we were five stories up we could hear the waves pounding the lava rock coast. It was loud! I had trouble sleeping. I was mesmerized watching the surf during the day but I wished for a switch to turn it off at night. During my morning Bible reading I was reminded of those places in the Psalms that use images of pounding surf. Let the sea roar! Psalm 98 says. It is praising God! It was roaring, indeed. Psalm 29 states that the voice of God is over the waters and in them the God of Glory thunders! Though the waters roar, Psalm 46 counsels, we will not fear. I confess that waking up to pounding surf when you are not used to it produces momentary panic. And then there is Psalm 42 which I pondered for a few days. Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls, all your waves and breakers have gone over me, is the way the Psalmist puts it. Looking out at these waves which were breaking at least ten feet high or greater and considering the force contained in them, I was sure I did not want them breaking over me! The Psalmist was reflecting on a particularly difficult time of his life. He felt crushed by the waves of life. Yet, he was not without faith, for he says that the breakers are God's breakers: Your waves and breakers go over me. Now, I never saw that before either. These breakers that threaten my life are from God? How so?

I doubt that the Psalmist knew how to surf but within eyesight of our lanai were many surfers. I have never surfed, either, so I was amazed at the way the surfers rode the waves to the safety of the coastline. It was obvious no one was going to go against the flow of the ocean. These surfers had learned to go with the flow and avoid being crushed by the force of the waves and have a thrilling ride at the same time. I wondered if this was what the Psalmist was telling us. You can either go with the flow or be crushed. We cannot control life. Right now, life seems out of control. We are being battered by high energy prices that seem to have no end in sight, increasing inflation, falling stocks, and and ongoing banking crisis - to name a few of the waves rolling over us. For some of us, those are not even the most important waves we are battling right now. The hope we have is what the Psalmist offers to us. These primeval forces are not chaotic. God is in control. Those waves are HIS waves! The God of the Bible who cares for us. Therefore, we will not fear. But what we have to do is learn to ride the waves. You see hope is not enough; we need to learn the art of surfing. The Psalmist gives us a few basic moves. He reminds us that these are God's breakers. They have a name and God knows we are in the midst of them. He sees the end to them even if we don't. They are breakers of love -verse 8- powerful, loud, scary but they come out of the loving heart of God. He will not let them harm us in the permanent and eternal sense. So, sing while you surf. Don't neglect worship as we tend to do when we are going through hard times. When we feel least like praising is when we need to do it the most. When the crashing surf keeps you up at night sing or listen to songs of praise. And pray, pray to the God of your life, who is over your life and who you have given your life to. When you are in the pounding surf, don't worry a bit about what someone else might say to you or about you. You might feel foolish, or out of your depth, or not exactly like a good Christian role model for the moment .... and people tend to criticize or judge from a distance ... but you are in the waves and riding the surf and to take your eyes off God will make it so much harder to surf. Learn how to go with the flow and avoid being crushed by the waves of life.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Gas Prices

Today is May 22 and here in Kodiak gas is up to 4.25 (what is with the 9/10 anyway?) a gallon. It was only 4.10 at the beginning of the month. The price of a barrel of oil keeps rising. So everyone is talking about how high gas will go. Here on an island, it affects more than just driving. Boats and planes need fuel too. Houses are heated with oil. Food, as well as everything else, comes in by plane or boat. So expenses are rising daily. How are people coping? I see more people walking and riding bikes. Of course, our weather is notoriously rainy so perhaps this is more a result of a week of sunshine than high prices. More trucks are for sale. Since everyone owns a truck there is a limit to how many of these will sell. Trucks are losing value by the day. There are few small cars for sale. That's mostly because we only have one major auto dealer (Ford) on the island and it has no Ford Escorts on its lot and only one Escape Hybrid. The only major used car dealer is still stuck with lots of trucks and SUVs which are not exactly flying off the lot right now. People are talking about growing more food but because our growing season is so short I know of only a few people who are successful at it. It seems like rhubarb is the only thing that grows easily here.

One benefit of living on an island with few roads is that you don't have to drive much. So our family has been walking and riding our bikes a lot more ( still it has been sunny...). Our truck which gets 12 mpg around town sits idly (not idling) by. Our Toyota Matrix which under performs at 20 mpg is our basic mode of vehicular transportation. This not only saves money ($4.25 for every 12 miles you walk or ride!) but it is good exercise since Kodiak is a very hilly place. It has always been expensive to live here compared to upstate New York where we used to live so the uptick in prices is not a huge surprise. When I talk to my family in New York they were stressing over gas in the $3.50 plus range; we've been paying that for a year or more.

We have been making changes in the way we eat, too. We don't go out to eat as much. This is not as big a sacrifice as it may sound since there are few places to eat out here and you get tired of going to the same places all the time. We don't stop at the coffee shop every day. A latte costs about what a gallon of gas does. So if you go without a latte a day you have saved up 7 gallons of gas which you can use when you really need your truck (that's a week of driving here!). We still go to the coffee shop for the conversation with friends and drink the very good brewed coffee which is locally roasted here in Kodiak. One of our favorite coffee shops is run by a French pastry chef so it's hard to pass up a muffin or scone. Our dilemma is: brewed coffee plus a muffin equals a gallon of gas but if we walk the three miles to this particular coffee shop we have saved $2.12 at the current prices (assuming we drove the truck) which buys a muffin and the walking takes care of most of the calories so you see its a win - win deal.

These changes slow us down too. This is good and bad. Life is already slower here so you can feel like a slug at times and we have plenty of those already (did I mention it rains a lot?). It takes longer to walk places but you do see more and the scenery is pretty spectacular here and you can take that for granted. So overall I think its a plus to slow down.

We are making other changes too about the way we eat and what we eat. Fish is plentiful here and cheaper than many places in the lower 48. A lot of times in the summer people share fish like people used to share produce in upstate New York. And one good trip out on a boat can put enough fish in the freezer to take you well into the next year. Salmon is good for you and we eat a lot of it. Even our local Subway sells salmon subs. It's hard to get fresh produce here so we pay a premium for it. No way around that. You are not going to grow it. The only fruit that grows here are salmon berries and due to two years of cold, wet Springs even those berries have been in short supply. The bears get most of what's there and you're not going to win many arguments with them. But we have been baking more: bread and cookies. We have changed our oatmeal brand to one that we can get in bulk and is cheaper. We are eating less which is not a bad thing because we discovered we were eating too much before. When we shop we try to stay to the outside aisles of the store - the perimeter - where you get more for your money because all the processed stuff is sold in the inner aisles.

So all in all, we do have some good choices here where our choices are fewer than many places in the lower 48. I know we are fortunate here because there are many places in the world where people's choices are much more limited and food shortages are making living nearly impossible. Organizations like Food for the Hungry and Compassion and World Vision are getting food to some of these people who have no good choices. Hopefully, this focus on high prices in America right now will help us change our lifestyles enough so we have more to share with those who have far fewer good choices than we do.

Friday, May 9, 2008


The news of the cyclone that hit Myanmar causing massive destruction and loss of life is all over the front pages of the news this week. Many people probably are not familiar with Myanmar. On the maps the news reports are showing Myanmar shares a border with China, Laos, India and Thailand. It is a nation slightly smaller than Texas. It is a major rice producer. Most people probably have heard of it by its old name, Burma. The Burma Road was a vital supply line to China in World War 2. Burma was also the destination of Adoniram Judson and his wife, Ann, in 1812. They were the first western missionaries to Burma. Judson spent the rest of his life there. It was a hard and unforgiving place to minister. Most of his family died there. He worked for six years without a convert to the Christian faith. He dreamed of finally building a congregation of just ten people. He translated the Bible into Burmese and worked on an English - Burmese dictionary. Much of his work was with the Karen people who live in the south of Myanmar close to the Thai border. His life and ministry is told in rich detail by Courtney Anderson in the book, To the Golden Shore.

Many of these Karen people have been fighting for democracy for years against the military rulers of Myanmar. Hundreds have fled the country as refugees and are living in the US and other countries. Burma was colonized by the British in the 1800s. In 1948 it became independent and since then has been ruled harshly by a military junta. There are few freedoms and any resistance is severely dealt with. Recently, the resistance of Buddhist monks was crushed violently. The Myanmar rulers are secretive and suspect any outside interference as subversive to their government. So they have been slow to welcome aid for the cyclone victims. You can dontate to the relief effort through many agencies such as World Vision, Food for the Hungry and the American Baptist mission board which has had a longstanding mission presence on Burma/Myanmar at

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rich Fool

Luke has a story Jesus told in chapter 12 of his gospel. It's been called the Rich Fool. Fool in the Bible doesn't mean stupid but Unwise in a Biblical sense. That would mean someone who looks at the world only through his/her own eyes. God is not in view. That was the Rich Fool's point of view. When he made the decision about what to do with his surplus, he talked only with himself. Not with his family, his friends or his spiritual advisor. Certainly not with God. This proved to be his fatal error. Since, God spoke to him or about him and said, "Tonight your life is demanded of you." The phrase that is used in Luke is a banking phrase. It means "your loan is being called in." From God's point of view our lives are on loan from Him. Life is not a right nor an entitlement. We don't deserve 8 days or 80 years. Every moment we live is a gift from God.

So all our stuff is a gift, too. We don't own it. None of it. When we die, which is the fact of life the Rich Fool overlooked, we take nothing with us. Tolstoy has a short story about a greedy man who had a chance to own as much land as he could encircle in one day, from sunup to sundown. He bit off more than he could run around and he wound up dead of heart failure. The sellers of the land buried him in a six foot grave. Tolstoy's story was entitled, "How Much Land Does A Man Need?". When the end comes that is all any of us need.

Jesus warns us in this story to check our greed or insatiable desires as it is sometimes translated. Watch out for it. We used to be aware of greed enough to at least want to hide it. It used to be something to watch out for. Anymore it seems like a good thing. Advertising cultivates it. Our sports stars model it. When one professional athlete signs a new mega bucks contract with another team he or she justifies it by saying he had to do what was best to care for his family. Most families get by just fine on millions less. When the college superstar leaves his studies early to jump to the pros, he or she justifies it by saying the money was too good to pass up.

Jesus seems to be saying that its good to pass up the money. He talked more about money than any other subject. Money must be one thing in life that can really mess us up. Like the Rich Fool shows. Money is not evil. Its the misuse of it that gets us into trouble. Problem is Jesus figured the misuse of it was way easier than the right use of it for us. The Rich Fool was already Rich. He had enough. He wanted more. He had to build bigger storehouses to put his more in. Why is it so hard to say, "That's enough!" "I don't need anything else." Jesus said, " Life does not consist in the surpluses we acquire." Yet, we live as if it does. He meant happiness or fulfillment does not come from stuff. Secular studies bear this out. They find that once our basic needs are met having more stuff does not make anyone any happier. In fact, more stuff brings more problems.

Jesus told this story after a brother came to him and asked him or told him to tell his brother to divide their father's inheritance with him. In Jesus day a father's estate went to the eldest brother unless the father had made other plans. Apparently in this case the older brother got it all and the younger brother wanted justice. He approached Jesus as a Rabbi who could give religious rulings. He sought Jesus out as if he was a spiritual guru and he probably wanted Jesus and the crowd on his side to put some pressure on his brother to share the goods. Money had already divided his family as it so often does. Jesus replied with a question," Who made me a judge or arbiter (divider) between you? Jesus did not come to divide people but to bring them together. Money brings division; Jesus brings reconciliation.

Keep your greed in check he told the brother and the crowd and then he told the story of the Rich Fool. It's a story not only about money but how money affects relationships. The Rich Fool is isolated. He is all alone. He has no one to talk with about the most important things in his life. It seems like the more money we have the more isolated we become. We buy bigger houses, surrounded by more land with higher fences and finally locate them in gated communities with security forces patrolling day and night.

Instead of letting our greed go unchecked, Jesus said, we should aim to be rich toward God. In another one of his sayings he said we should use our wealth to make friends for God. Money can be used for people's sake seems to be what Jesus is saying. Stuff is temporary but people are eternal. Jesus is not much concerned with stuff but he is with people. We need to be that way too. Money can easily divide us from others but it can be used to bring us together. Jesus parable teaches us to find ways to do that with our money and our stuff.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

How Big is Your Bible?

When we got married one of our wedding presents was a big Bible. I am talking huge here. It was from my wife's uncle and we think he intended it as a coffee table book or a family record keeper. It had a family tree in the front of it. Needless to say, we never used it. It was way too big to lug around and it was not very comfortable to hold on your lap. As big as it was, it was not useful. Most of our Bibles are not that big. In fact, most of our Bibles are pretty small when you consider how much of them we use. We have favorite verses or books or a Testament that we prefer. Usually that is the New Testament. We have this strange love-hate relationship with the Old Testament. We love the Bible but we don't like the Old Testament very much. It is filled with strange names, places, customs and laws. God seems a lot different from the Jesus we find in the New Testament. So we mostly don't read it very much.

If it was announced that an archaeological research team had just discovered the personal library of Jesus Christ imagine what a buzz that would create. A museum would no doubt be built to house it and Christians from all over the world would make pilgrimages to visit it. What would it be like to hold onto a book that Jesus held onto? Of course, we can and we do. The Bible Jesus used is the same one we have today. We have his personal library nicely bound for us many different editions.

He talks about his Bible in Matthew 5:17-20. He says there he did not come to do away with the Old Testament but to fulfill it. He takes a very high view of Scripture here and commands us to do the same. For us that means to love and use the Old Testament the way he did.

That does not change the fact that the Old Testament is strange to our ears. But it can become more familiar as we expose ourselves to it more and more. There are many good study Bibles available today that have extensive notes in the margins that cover much of the distance we feel between ourselves and the Old Testament.

We would like to have Jesus apart from the Bible. We want to love him and follow him without being bogged down by a big book. But this book was so important to him: not one letter or pen stroke did he overlook. There was a group of Christians in Germany just prior to World War Two who decided they wanted to have Jesus but not the Old Testament. Look at the Jesus they came up with. To know Jesus, to understand more of him, to love him we have to love his Bible and live it.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Marriage Today

A study done at the Center for Applied Research at Georgetown University (as reported in the Wall Street Journal Friday February 22, 2008), discovered that young Catholic adults -millennials- born between 1982 and 1989 believe in marriage but their faith is not an important part of that belief. They believe strongly that marriage is a lifetime commitment and that couples don't take marriage seriously when divorce is an easy option. They believe these things much more strongly than their parents do. What they don't believe as strongly is that the faith of the Church needs to inform their beliefs about marriage at all. What they tend to believe is more of what they have learned from their culture. They believe that who they marry must be their "soul mate" and that falling out of love is an acceptable reason for divorce. "Catholic young people have an individualized idea of who should set the rules", said Christian Smith, a sociology professor at Notre Dame. He went on to say, "Most younger Catholics have defined their inner self as the authority, and many freely distance themselves from church practices they don't believe in."

I find that to be true among Protestants, as well. In fact, it is a culture wide phenomenon. However, as far as marriage goes, it is pretty much left up to the couple to decide its meaning and how it is lived out. I have had couples come to me to do a marriage service for them and when I ask them why they want to get married in the church the best they can offer (usually the bride to be) is that she just always wanted a church wedding. How the Christian faith informs her decision or practice of marriage is not part of it.

The trend that I see is for even Christian young people to wait longer to get married and to live together before they do. If what they have is true love, then they choose to get married. If true love fails, then they choose to end the marriage.

In one of my early marriage sermons I said marriage is a calling from God. It is a "vocation", to use the Catholic term. Two Christian persons are responding to something God is doing in their lives. God is the center of their relationship. He will support, sustain and bless them. This understanding is missing as many couples think about marriage today. For most of them it seems like marriage is something the two of them have just come up with. In fact, the idea has been around a long time.

Oscar Season

This is Oscar season. The film industry's annual attempt to evaluate and reward itself. We film goers wait to see what the Industry thought was good work. We do not always agree, especially this year. Violent movies were the first choice for excellence this year. Violence that the reviewers in praise of the movie, nevertheless, called "disturbing". The films were nominated for Oscars because of their technical excellence, scriptwriting and performances. And most of the nominated films were outstanding in those areas. Still, why so much graphic, disturbing violence? I saw American Gangster, one of this years highly touted films, which opens with a scene of graphic violence and includes many others plus "disturbing images" of drug use. I chose not to see Sweeney Todd, In the Country of Old Men (even though I loved the Coen brothers "O Brother Where Art Thou?"), There Will Be Blood and Eastern Promises - all technically excellent films according to reviewers but very violent, as well. I watched In the Valley of Elah which cast Tommie Lee Jones, a favorite of mine, in an Oscar nominated role as a distraught father who is searching for his missing son who just returned from the Iraq war. Jones' work is lost in a film that says soldiers returning from the Iraq war are out of control. Numbed by the violence they have seen and experienced in Iraq, they have lost any moral compass and are liable to recreate the war violence on friends and family. It is as hopeless and dark a movie as you could ever watch. For this the academy awards it's highest honor.

I attended a Christian college in the 70's which had strict regulations about movies. We were not allowed to see them. It was a bit hypocritical since you could watch tv and there were movies to be seen there although heavily edited. How things have changed! I am still not used to the way Christians consume popular culture today, mostly uncritically, I think. When I was working with youth groups in the 80's and 90's I was frequently surprised when I heard what movies my church kids were watching. Parents seemed not to know or care. Today, I am surprised at how many Christian adults just "go to the movies" without any idea about what they are viewing or why.

Why were our Christian forefathers so concerned about movies that they were banned on many Christian college campuses? The movies back then were certainly tame compared to the "disturbing" sexual and violent images seen on the screen today. What do movies seek to do? Is movie going just an innocent use of leisure time such as watching a high school basketball game might be?

Movies have a point of view. They are windows on our culture. There are many good reasons to watch them. But we need to watch them critically. A film like In the Valley of Elah is making an anti-war statement. More than that it says that this country because of its war commitment is all wrong and in deep trouble. Do we need to see that? Does it need to make that point with its "disturbing images" of sex and violence? Maybe, maybe not. That's why we need to discuss it if we see it. It is more than "just entertainment."

Some movies are not quite so heavy, or as heavy as some think they are. Some like Enchanted or Hairpsray are for entertainment. Christians can enjoy them, too. The Bible warns us about what we put before our eyes because it goes straight to our minds and some of those images which are made to disturb you can't ever get out.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Back to Normal

Christmas is over, the artificial tree is put away, and holiday visitors are gone. New Year's diets have begun as we try to shed the pounds of Christmas treats we consumed. So we are back to our normal routine again. We like holiday breaks but we may like getting back to our normal routine even more. But what is normal, anyway? After Christmas the news was grim. Stocks were down, oil was up. There were reports of ethnic cleansing in Kenya. Pakistan was on the verge of chaos after Bhutto's assasination. Millions were homeless, jobless and hopless around the world.

In Matthew's gospel, after Christmas was hardly back to normal either. There was a surprising visit from foreign royal astronomers who read the stars and found their way to the Christ Child. When they got there they worshipped and were overcome with joy. Hardly normal when you consider that the normal thing would have been for the ones who knew the Old Testament scriptures and who lived nearby to pay a visit. Yet, it was the outsiders who came to Jesus birthday party and the insiders who apparently didn't have a clue or didn't care. Matthew is telling us that the gospel is for all people.

Then we read the disturbing story of King Herod, hardly a normal guy. It is said he killed his wife and other members of the royal family for suspected alliances against him. When he was close to death himself he had numerous citizens of Jerusalem killed so there would be plenty of mourning when he died. After the wise men's visit, he had all the children under two killed in Jesus hometown. This may have been normal behavior for Herod but Jesus birth hardly heralded a sense of normalcy for the area of his birth.

From this moment things were not normal when Jesus was around. Plenty of people found help and healing in his presence but many others were profoundly threatened by him, just as Herod was. "The shadow of the cross" fell over his life from this point on. Jesus turned things upside down. People, too.

I know people whose lives were changed dramatically when they met Jesus. And not only when they met him but all their lives. I heard from a friend who is a pastor and has been for almost 30 years. He has been at his last church for well over 20 years. His family is raised. He is getting close to his retirement dreams. Instead, he and his wife are selling out and moving to Texas to join a new church planting mission in some of the most unchurched areas of the world. He is trying to raise his own support. That is not normal. At least the way our culture views it.

Following Jesus often leads to all sorts of non normal behavior. Like the wise men, followers of Christ are on a journey. It is tempting to stay still, to become comfortable and secure in our careful lifestyle planning. Plenty of Christians are settled down and the excitement has gone out of their lives. Their lives are as normal as they can make them. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the comforts home and family bring. Just so long as we don't forsake the journey. God may not call you to leave home and job to take long trips to follow him. A lot of times the journey is much shorter. It may be to the living room early in the morning for a quiet time of prayer and Bible study. It may be across the street to care for someone home from the hospital. It may be to the other side of town to ask for forgiveness or to give it.

There will be a journey. Like the wise men, that's where we will find the joy of the Lord.