Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hannah's Child: A Theologians Memoir

Finished the new Stanley Hauerwas memoir last night called Hannah's Child. Hauerwas was named by Time magazine America's best theologian in 2001 in the September 10th issue. On the next day that honorable mention was all but forgotten. It is an interesting read. Hauerwas's life all by itself, even if he wasn't a controversial theologian, is a compelling story. He grew up in a hardworking, poor family in Texas. His dad was a bricklayer just like his dad and all his 5 brothers. Hauerwas started going to work with his dad before he was a teenager. His early life was defined by hard work, laying brick or peddling vegetables from his garden. This work ethic served him well later in life as people wondered how he managed to read and write so much. It also helped him cope with a difficult first marriage. Hauerwas is probably not known well in evangelical circles unless you have been to seminary or done graduate work in theology or Christian ethics. Only a couple of his books have made it beyond academic and professional circles. He co-authored a couple books with Will Willimon, Methodist preacher and bishop, and those are probably his most popular. He taught scores of students at Notre Dame and Duke Divinity School and was a popular teacher. A good speaker, he was known for colorful speech, and humor and well constructed lectures. He cared deeply about what he was doing. He wanted to think and teach about "what mattered."

His positions were not mainstream. He was criticized by liberals for his Barthian Christology and his high view of the Church. He was criticized by Catholics for being too Protestant and by Protestants for being too Catholic. In many ways, he was a unique blend of Anabaptism and Catholicism who ended up in the Methodist Church. He was influenced by John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite scholar. Yoder was a pacifist and convinced Hauerwas of the truth of that position. That conviction did not set well with most evangelicals and Catholics after 9-11. Hauerwas was not shy about criticizing Bush's response to 9-11 and the war on terror.

Whether you agreed with Hauerwas or not, there was no question where he stood. He said if you tell a Texan what you want he will either give it to you or kill you. Hauerwas pulled no punches. Yet, in his memoir he is gracious to a fault. When conflict or disagreement breaks up a relationship or friendship, he willingly accepts responsibility for his part of the problem. He did not write this story to tell his side so he would look better. It is as honest and transparent as a memoir can be. When a friendship fails, he is contrite and hopeful reconciliation will take place. Sometimes it did. Sometimes not. When he decided someone was dishonest or untrustworthy he told that person the relationship was over.

Even though he often felt like an outsider - not fitting into either the evangelical or liberal camp and not finding a lifelong home in any one denomination - his teaching should be heeded by Christians in all camps. Truth matters, and he thought hard and long about what that meant. It would be good if Christians cared more about what they say they believe. And if you believe it, you had better be ready to go wherever that belief takes you even it causes conflict.

Hauwerwas believed friendships mattered, too. He worked hard at relationships. His first marriage was to a difficult person (although even here he takes more than his share of responsibility), yet he worked at making it as good as it could be.

He valued the Church. Not only what the Church is and stands for ( he said once that it didn't really matter what he thought, what mattered was what the Church taught) but what it means to be a "congregation". One church he belonged to had too many people who did nothing to sustain the life of the congregation - that was a church that liked the idea of church but was not a congregation. Later in life, he and his second wife bought a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina for a getaway place. They discovered they never used it because they were always busy on weekends - at church. How refreshing to find someone - a theologian even - who not only says he believes in the church but is committed to it and actually shows up every week!

Worship is at the heart of Hauwerwas's theology. It is what Christians do. It is important for him to attend a church that takes worship seriously. One that celebrates the eucharist weekly and keeps to the services and vigils of Holy Week. In one church, he was part of, the pastor retired for health reasons and soon died. The new pastor came full of church growth ideas and "what would work" to make the church bigger. She cut back on some of services and the number of times the eucharist was celebrated. Instead of the traditional Holy Week services, she did some drama on Good Friday night. She went to a Willowcreek conference and told the church they were going to have a contemporary service and a traditional service and make some other seeker friendly changes. Hauerwas said "over my dead body", and rather than fight and perhaps split the church, walked away.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Summer Reading So Far

So the summer is half over (that's a depressing thought when we only yesterday saw some summer weather finally arrive here in Kodiak) and I am way behind in my summer reading plans. I did not get much reading done on my recent summer trip to the lower 48 because I was otherwise occupied (see my earlier blog). But as far as it goes, I have read some good books and I have a stack waiting for my perusal ( and a "stack" lined up vertically on my kindle). Some comment is in in order. I read Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns who is the president of World Vision. It's a good story about how he came to be the current president. He was very successful and a very rich businessman selling homeware to the very rich. God took him out of that business and put him in one that tries to get food to people who have little of it and couldn't care less about the homeware upon which it is served. It's a good story about how he struggled to hear God's call when he was about to buy into another company that would have guaranteed him 25 to 50 million in stock shares. Does the rich young ruler come to mind? Stearns also has plenty to say about the mission of the church to the poor (try these stats on for size: 25,000 children die every day due to hunger and hunger related causes; 2.6 billion people live on less than 2 dollars a day - Americans live on 105 dollars a day; the richest 7 people on earth control more wealth than combined GDP of the 41 poorest nations; 20 percent of the earths people consume 86 percent of the worlds goods; one of four children in developing nations are underweight; 350 to 400 million children are hungry right now; roughly 850 million people do not have enough food to sustain them; 9 million people die every year due to lack of good food. Stearns believes the church needs to do something about the crises the poor face and he offers suggestions for ways we can help.

Marilynne Robinson is a very smart woman. She is a fine novelist having written Gilead, Housekeeping and Home. An Absence of Mind is a very different kind of book. Not a work of fiction, it is piece of cultural criticism in which she tracks the death of the mind today. "Whoever controls the definition of the mind controls the definition of humankind itself, and culture, and history." "if the answer is we are the accidental outcome of the workings of physical laws which themselves are accidental, this is as much a statement of ultimate reality as if we were to find that we are indeed a little lower than the angels..." This is a book to be read and read again.

Why is it that Christians just can't get along? I don't know why I have such trouble getting that, or accepting it. We have a history of fighting over definitions. Definitions of theology, and of practices like baptism, and church symbols, and music, and furnishings, and lifestyle. We split, and split again until we are atoms in the larger church universe. If we are all one in Christ, I hope God can figure it all out and put us together again someday. John Philip Jenkins is a terrific church historian and writer and he has done it again in The Jesus Wars which tells the story of church infighting from the beginning when the church struggled to get the definition of who Jesus Christ was exactly right. The stakes were high and emotions were too. People died in this theological warfare. At least no one lost their lives when we replaced some pews with chairs.

Family life is hard. What would it be like to be a husband with four wives and 28 children! How would you get to all those little league games in one night? Maybe you would just have your own team, or two or three! Brady Udall wrote one of my favorite books, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, so I took a chance on his next book, The Lonely Polygamist. You can see where this is going. Some good novels have been written about family dynamics; this is a good story about a man who has to deal with four families and himself all at the same time. Good read.

Stanley Hauerwas was catapulted to fame a few years ago when Time called him the greatest theologian in America. Hauerwas who teaches in the Duke Divinity School was taken aback. He is a hard working theologian who has written some books and is often asked to speak at theology conferences but much of his work is critical of our American culture and the church's captivity to it. He was not looking for this "honor". So he wrote this memoir to answer the question, Who is Stanley Hauerwas? It is not the person so dignified by Time's selection as America's Top Theologian. The name of the book is Hannahs Child. His mother, Hannah, had a child late in life after losing a baby who was stillborn. She prayed to God like Hannah did in the Samuel story in the book of Kings and promised to dedicate her son to God just like Hannah did if God would answer her prayer. He was named Stanley after Stanley who sought after Dr Livingstone in Africa. Stanley's mother Hannah told him when he was six that he was a direct answer to prayer and he was dedicated to God. He says:"I am not sure what possessed my mother to unload her story on me at that time... My fate was set - I would not be if she had not prayed that prayer...whatever it means to be Stanley Hauerwas is the result of that prayer. Was I robbed of my autonomy by my mother's prayer? Probably. But if so, I can only thank God. Autonomy given my energy would have meant going into business and making money. There is nothing wrong with making money but it was just not in my family's habits to know how to do that... I certainly like the work my mother's prayer gave me.

He had me hooked when he told about his conversion. " I was baptized at Pleasant Mound Methodist Church in Pleasant Mound, Texas - a small town outside Dallas... Pleasant Mound Methodist was Methodist but like most folks in that area we were really Baptist which meant that even though you had been baptized and become a member of the church you still had to be "saved". Baptism and membership were Sunday morning events. Saving was for Sunday nights. Sunday night was an hour hymn sing, a time for personal prayer at the altar, a forty five minute to an hour sermon, and then a call to the altar for those convicted of their sin. I was in my early teens and had begun to date a young woman who also went to the church. I was pretty sure I was beginning to sin and I needed to be saved but I didn't think I should force God's hand. Our pastor was Brother Zimmerman. He had actually gone to college but he preferred to be called "Brother" to show that even though he was educated he was not all that different from the rest of us. He was thin as a rail because he gave everything to being a minister. I remember him being a lovely, kind man but he believed we did need to be saved. He put up a tent outside the church every summer so we could have the yearly revival. It was quite an honor for a clergyman from another nearby Methodist Church to be asked to come and preach the revival. Despite the honor, the clergyman had to be from a nearby church because we could not afford to pay travel. It was never clear to me why we needed to be revived but you could always count on some members of the church, and they were often the same people year after year, being saved. I sometimes think they wanted to be saved in order to save the preacher, because it was assumed that the Word had not been rightly preached if no one was saved.

So there I sat Sunday night after Sunday night thinking I should be saved but it did not happen. Meanwhile, some of the youth were "dedicating themselves to the Lord" which usually meant they were going to become a minister or missionary. I am not sure how this development among the youth of Pleasant Mound began but it was not long before several kids older than I was, had so dedicated their lives. So, finally one Sunday night after singing "I Surrender All" for God knows how many times, I went to the altar rail and told Brother Zimmerman that I wanted to dedicate my life to the Lord. I thought that if God was not going to save me, I could at least put God in a bind by being one of his servants in the ministry. When I took that trip to the altar, I assumed I was acting "freely" but in fact I was fated to make that journey by the story my mother had told me."

Good Samaritans in Haiti

Holding the real print copy of the NY Times in my hands last week at the George Fox library, the front page article on Haiti drew my attention. It was part of their ongoing coverage of the aftermath of the great earthquake ( oh yeah its not over and the country is not back to normal whatever normal means in Haiti). Six months later only 28,000 of the 1.5 million people displaced by the earthquake have moved into what generously might be called houses. The picture on the front page showed a busy Port au Prince street with a median strip that was filled with flimsy shanties, one after the other, as the traffic whizzed by on either side. These "homes" fortified by rubber tires to keep cars from crashing into their shelters as they slept were right in the midst of the nightmare that is Port au Prince traffic. All day long vehicles rumble by, blaring horns, raising dust, belching exhaust; many vehicles have run into the homes, hit pedestrians who have to cross the street to get to the bathrooms, and even killed some people. It is rare that anyone stops to offer help. "Don't they have a heart?" one resident of the median strip homes asked. She was covering her children with a floral shirt because the diesel fumes were intolerable.

The Good Samaritan story. That is what came to mind. People passing by other people who were victims. A victim of a mugging in the story Jesus told. What are the median strip people victims of? Bad luck, inept government, callousness, selfishness, forgetting.... We all pass by. Out of sight, out of mind. The victim in Jesus story is unnamed. So are the median people, just images in a photo. In the crowded city of Port au Prince, most of them are unknown to those who pass by every minute of every day. And what would a person do who stopped. What help would they offer. What would the pastor and Bible scholar do if they stopped? They are not trained EMTs. What if their help made matters worse? What if they were sued when their help left the victim in more serious condition? If they had cell phones, they could have called 911. Maybe they notified the authorities when they got to their destination. Jesus does not say they were bad men. Just that they passed by. They had other things on their minds; they did not want to make matters worse. Jesus does say this: They were not good neighbors. They left the Greatest Commandment unfulfilled.

That was the original question. The religious scholar wanted to know what he had to do to make sure he had eternal life. Jesus asked him how he interpreted the law. The man knew the heart of the law and Jesus said so. Go and do it, Jesus said. But the man lingered. He had a question. Just who is my neighbor he asked. Definitions. The need to be precise. What exactly are the limits of my responsibilities here. Too bad Jesus does not give definitions. So we can know exactly what we are supposed to do. He tells stories. There it is. The story of the Good Samaritan, the one who did not pass by, the one who fulfilled the Greatest Commandment, the one who was a neighbor.

And people keep passing by that median strip. Thousands a day. Worlds away I pass by too. How can I be a neighbor?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Summer Travels

We just returned from a two and a half week trip down the Alaska Highway to Portland, OR. We drove the AK Highway almost 12 years ago when we moved out to Kodiak. It was mid March then. We remarked several times that we don't know how we did the drive in the winter. Ignorance is bliss, I guess. One of our sons was driving a U-Haul and I was driving our mini-van. Both vehicles were packed to the max. The road in the winter was icy and snow covered much of the way. As we drove it this time, we were amazed at the steep climbs, the hair pin curves and the abundant wildlife near the roadside. My wife said it reminded her of those video games our sons used to play where all kinds of dangers popped out at you while you drove your virtual car down the road. We felt like that sometimes. I had no problem staying awake while I drove! It was almost 3000 miles from here to Portland. We took 7 days which meant long 12 - 13 hour driving days. With few breaks. It is two lane highway most of the way with few services. The road for the first half of the trip is one long frost heave with patches of gravel thrown in from time to time. I don't remember the road being so bad the first time we did the trip. I think the road may actually be better in winter. But the days are much shorter and the road ices up when the sun sets. We stayed in all kinds of places. One roadhouse was so noisy we didn't get any sleep and I was up at 3:30 am ready to hit the road. We also stayed in a Presidential Suite in Whitehorse, Yukon when the person at the check in counter told me it was the only room available and I did not want to return to the car and tell my wife we had to go on - after we had already driven 13 hours that day. We stayed in a beautiful lodge on Muncho Lake - one of most awesome and remote lakes I have ever seen.

After we began the trip we heard that my sister who I had not seen in 3 years was going to be at a conference in Portland. In order to see her before she flew home we had to make time. We got to see her the night before she left. We were glad we did. Then it was onto Portland - Newberg actually - where our son and daughter in law are in school We were bringing our truck to them so they could use it for student teaching and to move back to Kodiak when their year of grad school is done. Before we flew back to Kodiak (how amazing! we covered the same ground in a three and a half hour flight that it took us days to drive!) we were able to spend some days on the Oregon coast and on a farm in the wine country of Yamhill county (with good friends). It was the height of berry season in Oregon so we feasted on fresh fruit, often on ice cream. It was a great trip but as always the best part is the first night back in our own bed in Kodiak.