Thursday, December 30, 2010

Senior Fitness

There are more and more articles and books written about health and fitness. All the major media outlets have a special category called Health or Nutrition or Fitness. It is a big topic for our aging population which we all should be interested in because we are all aging. But, truth is most of us don't spend too much time thinking about it until we see ourselves as aging and old. Turning 60 has that effect on a person.

This morning I read an article about a woman who was morbidly obese at 45. Her doctor told her she was a heart attack waiting to happen. That did not make her change her bad habits but when she was unable to get into a boat on a family outing she realized she was electively crippled, as she called it. So, she started to walk and take more precautions about her diet. Then, she began swimming. At first, she could not make it across the pool and felt stupid but her instructor would not let her quit. So today, at 69, she competes in senior swimming competitions. Her husband, 73, is equally fit. We are reading more and more about seniors who are more fit now than they were in their younger days. It seems like it is never too late to change your diet and get more exercise. You will get a lot more out of life should you live into old age.

Our society does not make it easy to do that. Restaurants serve portions that are too large. And there is a lot of unhealthy food and cooking methods out there for our consumption. It is better to prepare your own food with healthy ingredients and downsized portions and if you want to eat out sometimes choose a place that takes healthy eating seriously. Exercise is the same way. You have to take charge of it yourself. Try to walk/run/swim or bike several times a week. Get to a gym to do some weightlifting a couple times a week. You can do pushups and ab work at home, too. The experts say that keeping your core (abs) strong is the key to balance and fewer back problems. Stretching is critical, too, as we age. It is not about winning a contest like it was when you were younger but just being able to take a hike with your kids or lift your 50 lb piece of luggage when you are traveling.

Competition is not bad. Some of us are wired that way. I may be looking for some senior bicycling competitions now that I am eligible to take my reduced senior lunch at the senior center. It may be time to start planning that long dreamed about cross country bike trip, too.

Week Old Bread and Sermons

Doing some end of the year tasks this week like writing my annual report for the annual business meeting. I wonder about that one. How much time do you put into a report that a small percentage of the congregation ever reads and when it is read it takes a few minutes, and is never discussed, and then filed away for perpetuity. Which means it is never looked at again. Then, there is the task of looking back over the year of preaching. What does one do with preached sermons? This past year I preached over twenty times from the gospels, mostly from Luke which was the lectionary gospel this year. I preached sermons from Habbakuk and Haggai which was fun because many people had never heard a sermon from those Bible books (one person confessed he did not even know Habakkuk was in the Bible but he read it and liked it.). Then, there were about ten other Old Testament sermons, mostly from Jeremiah. The epistles were the source for three sermons, Acts for one, and none from Revelation. I don't remember much from most of those sermons although as I looked through them some of the main points came back to me. As I said, the Biblical texts came from the lectionary this year. I haven't always followed the lectionary but I am finding I like to more and more. The text is already selected and it can be facing me as I get started on sermon work Monday morning. If forces me to consider passages in the Bible I would otherwise never think of like Habakkuk and Haggai. At this stage in my preaching I like not having to come up with a text, or a topic or a series on my own. I know I would probably preach on those themes I like the most. Still, I noticed my preaching is informed by my current reading and experiences both personal and what is going on in the community or the world. That is as it needs to be. Preaching is not a lecture or a course people are taking. It needs to speak to our lives as we live them. That suggests what to do with the past years sermons. I don't read preachers books of sermons. Old sermons are like week old homemade bread - stale and dry. However, there is nothing like a good piece of bread right out of the oven. Sermons are like that. They are best consumed on the day they are preached after a week of preparation. They are the fresh meal of God's word for that day. If you eat it weekly, it will sustain you over time. It is not so good served as leftovers. So, like I often do with my homemade bread that has become stale and dry, I will throw these old sermons out. It is not easy to do that with my bread and I find it just as hard to do that with my sermons.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some Good Books 2010

This might seem like a strange place to start but one of the books I read this year was The Art of Dying by Rob Moll. It is a very wise and necessary book. You might think we would talk more about dying because we are all doing it but we don't. We act like we are going to live forever. When you pass a milestone like I did this past year - a 60th birthday - you are bound to get a bit more realistic about life. You have your limits in clearer perspective. Maybe not as clear as they need to be, but you are getting closer. You are not going to accomplish all those things that were options in your 20's. Probably no PH.D, and travel to far flung places, and all the money you were going to save by now - all these things as well as a host of others are out of reach now. You cannot physically do what you could even ten years ago. You stopped playing church softball so long ago it seems like another lifetime. Now, this is not morbid thinking. It is realistic. Limits. Deal with them. Recognizing our creaturely limits seems like a prerequisite for knowing God. We are dependent creatures. No matter what we think when we are younger.

Limits was a theme in many of the books I read this year. Probably that has been a theme in other years as well but I was more attuned to it this year. The Warmth of Other Suns has to be at the top of my list of books this year. Isabel Wilkerson spent years researching this book about the northern migration of Blacks in the Jim Crow years. She follows three main figures in their migration north to find a life that was their own. A life of freedom, and dignity, and opportunity. What they found was too often more of the same kind of limited life they knew in the South. There was job discrimination, housing discrimination, educational discrimination and a whole lot of racism hidden under the surface of life. In New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, they learned to make a life within those limits. As she follows those three lives, she also traces how a whole country changed during the era of increasing awareness of civil rights and greater freedom for all.

Eliza Griswold told a gripping story of religious limits as she traced the fault line between Christians and Muslims in places like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia and the Philippines - along the tenth parallel. Most of the Muslim world is not in the Middle East but in these parts of the world. Here, there is an often violent clash of civilizations and cultures. Here, is where Christians and Muslims are fighting out their territorial claims and in some cases trying to see if they can work together for peace and to solve the larger social problems, ie poverty, the growing gap between the rich and poor, religious freedom, and terrorism. Here, is a part of the world that is volatile - and how these conflicts are dealt with will shape our world in the future.

Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden is one of the most stimulating books of Bible interpretation I have read in years. She is a scholar in the Classics and she takes what she knows and interprets the Bible in the context of Greek and Roman literature and culture. In doing so she sheds much light on Paul's teaching regarding women, slavery, and sex and marriage. In recent times Paul has been criticized for being out of touch with these issues and not having a word to say for more modern times. In giving Paul another look against his culture, Ruden gives us a very different look at how far ahead of his times Paul really was.

History is a favorite subject of mine. I enjoyed reading about the years leading up to our civil war in Daniel Walker Howe's book What God Hath Wrought. Another special historical interest of mine is the early church. Peter Leithart's book Defending Constantine brings alive the fourth century and the impact of Constantine upon the Church and of his policies to Christianize the empire. Much has been written of Constantine and much of it assumes Constantine used the Church for his own purposes. When he made everyone Christian it is said he diluted the faith and vitality of Christianity. He made Christianity too easy and at the same time made it worth less. A shallow, commitment phobic, Christian Church today is the result of his policies or so it is said. Leithart says Not So Fast in many ways in a well researched and well written book that will give the reader many reasons to rethink Constantine and his impact on church and culture.

Jean Edward Smith does much the same for U.S Grant that Leithart does for Constantine. Grant has an unremarkable reputation as a drunk and corrupt politician who happened to be in the right place at the right time in the Civil War. From there he parlayed his fame as a Civil War hero to a two terms in the White House, an office he kept through an unscrupulous use of patronage. Smith takes these charges head on and in a highly readable style restores Grant's reputation as not only a great Civil War general but one of our better presidents, too.

Of course, I read "in my field" too. I enjoyed Ed Dobson's book The Year of Living Like Jesus. Dobson was a cohort of Jerry Falwell one time, long ago. He has since gone on to other pursuits. This one involved reading the Gospels and actually doing what Jesus said to do. Another book about a man learning to live like Jesus is Wisdom Chaser by Nathan Foster. His father is the reluctantly famous Richard Foster who has written several books on spiritual growth and formation. One was called Celebration of Discipline. Foster's son grew up knowing his dad was famous but not what for. He had no aptitude for what his dad was doing or teaching. He felt like his famous father's work took him away from home too much. He grew up rebellious and it took him until his 20's to get it. The way he got to know his dad and what his dad was all about was through climbing mountains with him. Reading this book gives us a chance to get to know Father and Son better too. James Davison Hunter wrote an important book that was reviewed all over the place. It was titled To Change the World. Christians are always about coming up with plans and slogans to change the world. Hunter demonstrates very clearly why this is so hard to do.

I always enjoy fiction for its insights into what makes us tick. This year I especially enjoyed Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and Noah's Compass by Ann Tyler and Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout.

I have a weakness for sports biographies. This year I bypassed one on my boyhood hero Mickey Mantle because it dished out so much trash on his life and I prefer to remain ignorant of the details and remember him as I thought of him as a boy. Willie Mays is arguably the best centerfielder of Mantle's era and his biography sends you to a world when players played for the love of the game and didn't play for the highest bidder. Mays was no A-Rod whose bio also came out. That's a good thing.

Hannah's Child is a memoir written by theologian Stanley Hauerwas who is hard to classify. He is anabaptist, Methodist, pacifist and catholic. He taught at Notre Dame and Duke. He is a prolific writer who bares his personal soul telling about a hard marriage and professional disappointments. He writes well and comes across as someone you would like to meet at the coffee shop and talk theology.

There were other books like Robert Webber's Divine Embrace which I wish I had read years ago and Rediscovering Values by Jim Wallis who was probably trying to figure out who the heck is Glenn Beck and why does he hate me. The Big Short tried to help me figure out what the heck is wrong with the economy but I'm afraid to admit I still don't get it and I sure hope someone does. Custer's Last Stand by Nathan Philbrick convinced we made the wrong man a hero. Too Small to Ignore is a moving memoir by the president of Compassion and a compelling challenge to continue to sponsor children around the world. Something we all can do right from where we live.

There is a limit to the number of books you can read in a year. And a limit to the number you can write about. I have reached mine.

The Bible App

I was sitting in a local coffee shop with a friend and I heard a familiar song on the sound system. I couldn't bring it up and so I asked my friend if he knew who the artist was. He said no and then wait a minute and pulled out his iphone and held it up to the music. I have this app he told me that matches any music being played to the artist and song title. Of course, you can also purchase it instantly from itunes. Apps are now a noun and a way of life. There are more apps than anyone can possibly even know about. Time, Wall Street Journal, and the NY Times all have apps and they all have articles describing the top 10 apps everyone needs to have, or the 10 coolest apps, or the best apps for whatever you are into. I confess I am app challenged. I only have a few apps and I don't even use most of them. I have an app for the weather and one to check the flight status of Alaska Air flights and other than those two I don't use apps much. Sad, I know. Funny how with all our apps most of us are still time challenged. Seems like the apps that are supposed to free up time end up taking more of our time. But we are into apps. We like applications. Applied life. Tell me something I can use, useful. It needs to be practical, practicable. I don't have time for stuff that does not help me today.

I have heard that before. Preacher, make sure your sermon has an application. People need to be able to know how to apply what you are saying to life. Or else they will not listen. They want to know how to use it. End your sermon with how to put what you said into practice. Preach "how to" sermons. People will love them. How to pray, how to raise good kids, how to keep your marriage alive, how to forgive, etc, you see there are a million of them. These kinds of sermons scratch where people are itching. They will keep them coming back. The worst comment a preacher can here is that she or he is not relevant, contemporary. Not an app.

I imagine you can get the Bible as an app. That's the way a lot of people use it anyway. A text for the day, or the crisis. If you feel this way, look up such and such. The Bible must meet our demand to be practical, too. Problem is there are large chunks of the Bible that are not. Like genealogies, Old Testament laws and lists of stuff and the Bible is filled with stories that don't seem to be getting anywhere, fast. What is the practical lesson we are supposed to derive from the story of David. Just tell me what it is so I can do it. I don't have time to read the whole thing! What about the story of Jesus! Do you mean I have to read the whole gospel, all four of them? Just break it down and tell me what to do. Get to the point, preacher!

Peter Leithart in his book, Deep Exegesis, writes, "God in his infinite wisdom decided to give us a book, a very long book, and not a portrait or an aphorism." "God reveals himself in his image, Jesus, but we come to know that image by reading, and that takes time." Then, Leithart says, "God wants to transform us into the image of his image, and one of the key ways he does that is by leading us through the text. If we short circuit that process by getting to the practical application, we are not going to be transformed into the ways God wants us to be transformed."

Hmm. Maybe the point is that He wants to know us. And He wants us to know Him. And that happens through a long, and deep and ultimately transforming encounter with His Story, the Bible. Through conversation and relationship. Which takes commitment, and lots of time. A lifelong pursuit to live Godly lives. And there is no app for that.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Randomness of Life

I was interested in an article by Gina Kolata who writes on health and fitness topics for the NY Times. She told how she fell on a bike ride recently and broke her collarbone. It so unnerved her that she thought she might never ride again. She had had other injuries from exercise before, for instance, a stress fracture from running but she never considered stopping her running. She wondered why. After talking to some other doctors and sports psychologists, she realized we tend to fear what we cannot control. A running injury is explainable. You run too much and you get a stress fracture. You take time off running and you heal. On her bike she was drafting off another cyclist and he swerved and she hit his rear tire and went down. She could not control the other cyclists movement nor what happened when she hit the tire. She was out of control and hurt. I have had that happen to me. When you hit a cyclists rear tire, you are the one who falls. It happens so fast there is no way to prevent it other than not riding so close but then you are not drafting. I was riding one Good Friday afternoon. It was an unusually warm Spring day and I was on my usual route for an hour long bike ride. I was on a main road and a car ran a stop sign at one of the intersections I passed. It happened so fast I could do nothing but choose what part of the car I was going to hit. I was not seriously hurt although I could have been. My bike was bent and my helmet was broke but I preached on Easter. That was many years ago but I am a more cautious rider today because of it. I have thought about that accident many times. If I had left my house a moment or two later or if I had been averaging a mile an hour slower pace or the person who hit me had chosen a different route home. If, If, If,... It's pretty common to second guess yourself after an accident.

Gerald Sittser was involved in a much more serious accident in 1991. Returning from a conference with his mother, wife and three children in their mini-van, they were hit head on by a drunk driver who crossed over into his lane going 85 mph. Gerry's mother, wife and their youngest child were killed in the crash. He wrote about the accident and how it affected his life in a book called A Grace Disguised. In one of the chapters, The Terror of Randomness, Sittser talks about how he fantasized for hour upon hour about all the little things he might have changed that day to avoid that accident. Any minor change to their schedule that day would have prevented the accident. He wrote that we expect life to be orderly because it usually is. There are certain natural laws life depends on. But, then accidents happen. A tornado interrupts the normal pattern of life. A man who watches his health all his life wakes up to find a lump on his neck. A woman who has enjoyed a normal life with a fulfilling career, and family decides to go for a run in a park on vacation and is assaulted by a stranger. Why, do accidents happen. Accident means something unplanned, unwanted happened for no reason. Accidents are random. Accidents, by definition, are out of our control. Sittser says Randomness mandates that we simply live as best we can, but in the end we must realize that what happens is often arbitrary. At such times the universe seems to make as much sense as a little girl who thinks her fleeting grudge against her brother is the reason he got measles.

Suffering, he says, may be at its fiercest when it is random, for we are then stripped of even the cold comfort that comes when events, however cruel, occur for a reason.

One day as Sittser was reliving that day and trying to think of how it might have been different if he changed one thing or another, his brother in law challenged him to reconsider whether he would really want the kind of power he was talking about. He told Sittser that life in this world is an accident waiting to happen and there is not much we can do about it. Common sense tells us to wear seat belts, and quit smoking, and exercise and good habits will minimize accidents but not eliminate them completely. Do you really, Sittser was asked by his brother in law, want to know the future so you could protect yourself from the accidents that inevitably and randomly occur in everyone's life. And he went on, if you could know the future and could alter your life in the present to avoid the accidents that were coming, would you want to know what accidents would befall you in your new altered life. What you want, he told Sittser, is to be God which is impossible. So, given that that option is closed the only other option would be to lock yourself in your house and put yourself in an antiseptic bubble for the rest of your life. But, who really wants to do that. Better, the brother in law said, to brace yourself for accidents and endure them the best you can. Better to give up your quest for control and live in hope.

Sittser went on to say that people who learn to live in hope seem to weather loss better than those who don't. Most of us don't live in absolute terror considering all the terrible accidents that may happen to us. We manage to live reasonably well and when it comes time to face the worst we can accept it as part of the bargain of living in a fallen world. We take our chances, all things considered, life is still worth living.

Sittser says he has been helped by two Biblical stories, Job's and Joseph's. Job learned that behind the apparent randomness of life is the existence of God whose greatness transcended Job but did not nullify the importance of his choices. Job found meaning in the ineffable presence of God which he could not fully comprehend but could experience in the depths of his being. Joseph's story helps us to see that our own tragedies can be a very bad chapter in a very good book. The terror of randomness is enveloped by the mysterious purposes of God. In the end, life turns out to be good, although the journey to get there may be circuitous and difficult.

Truth is we cannot see the bigger picture. But we choose to believe there is one and our lives and losses fit into the Great Story that has God for its author. That is our faith that life is not random, after all.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Constantine Defended

A common and simple outline of church history says that the purity of the early Church was lost during the era when Constantine was the emperor of Rome. Between the end of the Constantinian era and the Reformation, the Middle Ages muddled through the corruption of the Church with small groups of monks who preserved whatever purity of the early Church that was left. The Reformers recovered the purity of doctrine but not Christian discipleship or conduct because they were too closely allied with a National Church ( the Constantinian problem all over again). In Modern Times the Church is splintered, shallow and in some places serves to prop up a nationalistic idea of the state, ie, American civil religion or Dutch Reformed support of the state in South Africa. There are pockets of the "purer" version of early Christianity in places and some Churches seek to recover that purity but generally the Church today is in a "fallen" shape due to the Constantinian compromise. That compromise allowed the Church to exist freely as long as it supported the state. Before Constantine, Christians were known by their lifestyle because it was risky to be a Christian. After Constantine, there was no risk, everyone was just a Christian. Today, the Church is full of "just Christians" and no one really knows what it means to be a Christian. But, it doesn't mean much. Certain Anabaptists will say that the Reformation did not go far enough - it did not reform discipleship/conduct - and it did not overturn the Constantinian compromise. The purity of the early Church has been lost and so we are members of a "fallen" church today. John Howard Yoder is the main proponent of this view.

Peter Leithart has issues with this common, simple outline of Church history and with Yoder's analysis of the Constantinian problem. His book, Defending Constantine, is a richly researched history of Constantine and his era as well as a study of the theological and political implications of that history. It seems to me Leithart has shown that Constantine was a genuine Christian who had a positive impact on the history of the Church ( the common, simple outline suggests his impact was mostly negative). The generally accepted view of Constantine is cynical. He used the Church to further his political vision of a unified and ever expanding empire. And as he gave the Church privileged status, the Church reciprocated by supporting his vision for empire. That's the cynical view and Leithart has shown it to be wrong.

Leithart shows that Constantine was a man of simple but true faith. He was also a ruler and a military man, an emperor of his times. He tried to practice his Christian faith as best he could. He ended the widespread persecution of Christians which I assume most of them were grateful for. Although his policies favored the Church, he allowed for religious freedom. He did not have a policy of forced conversion and pagans retained high positions in his administration. He built many Church buildings and supported Church ministries of compassion and mercy. He appointed numerous Christians to leadership positions in his government but he did not attempt to Christianize the legal system. One of his acts that had the most far reaching implications was his decision to end the sacrificial system of Rome. As Leithart says, "Roman sacrifice was at the center of Roman civilization." "It was the chief religious act by which Romans communicated and communed with the gods, keeping the gods happy so Romans could be happy." Roman senators sacrificed when they made deals and decisions. Soldiers sacrificed to their gods for success on the battlefields. Citizens were required to show their devotion to the Roman gods and the emperor by sacrifice. Christians refused to sacrifice to Roman gods and so prior to Constantine they were sacrificed. Roman society demanded sacrifice. When Constantine eliminated sacrifice, Leithart says, he unintentionally sowed the seeds of Rome's eventual collapse, "and established that Rome's life now depended on its adherence to another civic center, the Church." The Church is based on Christ's sacrifice for us and he calls us to live a sacrificial lifestyle. Christ's sacrifice started a new city whose citizens live by mutual love and service. What Constantine probably did not see was that he was not just initiating a new religion ( cultus) into the Roman mix of religions, but he was welcoming another city (polis), the city of God, Christ's city, the body of Christ which cannot be co-opted by any human powers.

So in Leithart's view we can be hopeful about the Church's future. In his view, the Church never did "fall" in the Constantinian era. He sees a much more resilient Church than Yoder does. The Church is the model community of justice and peace that other political leaders should imitate. It is God's alternative polis. There never was a pure Church so there is no point trying to find it and get back to it. In every age, as the times and eras change, God has worked by His Spirit in his Church to show the world what a true city looks like and what the City of God will look like some day.

Modern politics does not welcome the Church, the true city. Modern states are happy to use the Church as long as it knows its place. It needs to remain out of the public sphere and focus on piety and personal faith, propping up the state and it's causes when asked. Modern states denounce the Constantinian system. Totalitarian states sacrifice Christians all over again. Democratic states marginalize the Church and only accept it as a cheerleader for its causes. However, all modern states depend on sacrifice too. Unwilling to accept the final sacrifice of Christ, they continue to offer human sacrifices through various pogroms and wars.

Leithart agrees with some of the radicalism of Yoder but he also counsels patience. Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, neither is the city of God. But it is coming and it can be seen and experienced in part, in many places in the world today. The Church is not either pure or apostate which are the only two options Yoder seems to recognize. There are are a number of other points on the spectrum. There have been historically and there are today. Augustine said that in "this middle time" between Christ first advent and the coming kingdom of God we must always pray, forgive us for our sins. Yoder and others don't think we can expect much in this middle time. But, Leithart says, not so. Through reevangelization, and forming a Christ centered politics and a fresh public confession that Jesus's city is the model city, his blood the only expiating blood, his sacrifice the sacrifice that ends sacrifice, we can witness to the City of God amid the cities of earth.