Friday, December 30, 2011

Times of Our Lives

I watched two movies this week between Christmas and New Year's Day. Both had to do with time, appropriately. The first was a Woody Allen film called Midnight in Paris. It's about a Hollywood screen writer who wants to write a novel. He does not feel satisfied with his current writing jobs and his fiance and her parents do not appreciate the work he does. He loves Paris and he and fiance tag along with her rich parents when her father has business to transact there. The Paris he is love with is the Paris of the 1920's full of famous writers and painters. If only he had lived then, he would have been a serious writer. Still, he believes just being in Paris will stimulate his writing juices. His future wife wants to shop and sight see and they run into one of her former professors and his wife. He is an arrogant know it all who impresses Gil's (the screenwriter played by Owen Wilson) fiance with his erudition. Gil is bored and turns to walking the streets of Paris. Paris is beautifully filmed and Gil is in love with it. Around midnight the first night of his walks and after a few drinks he gets lost on his way back to the hotel and sits on the front steps of a building. An old looking car with driver approaches and a man in the back waves for him to join a party going on in the car. Once there he realizes it is F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zoe and a series of magical midnight excursions into the 1920's begins where he meets many famous authors and artists. He has the time of his life. He meets someone there in the 20's who is a kindred spirit and he falls for her. But, she feels she belongs truly to an earlier era and leaves him for that time. He realizes that he can't live in the past, only learn from it, and when he accepts that he can be his best writing self where he is right now.

The second movie was based in modern Kenya. The Kenyan government has declared everyone has a right to free public education. Schools begin to form all over the country. Out in the bush children crowd into a small building to attend first grade. There are two earnest teachers and many enthusiastic children ready to learn. Then, an old man comes to the gate of the school compound. He is 84 years old and he wants to come to school. After all, the government said education was free for all. He is told he is too old and it will be too disruptive for him to join the school. They don't even have enough resources for the children. He says he wants to learn to read. When he was young the British would not let Africans go to school. Then, he became one of the Mau Mau who fought the British for independence. He was in a prison camp for ten years. He was tortured and he saw his family killed by the British. He will not be denied a chance to learn to read now. Many people did not want to hear his story and relive the pain of the war years. They wanted to move on, to leave the past in the past. But he knew we have to learn from the past not ignore it or deny it. The present can only be made better through the past.

Then, I read a book. It was written by Tony Judt. Judt is a world class historian and a book in European history since 1945 was a New York Times book of the year in 2005. Then Tony found out he had ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease which eventually left him paralyzed. That's when he wrote his last book, The Memory Chalet. For Tony, with ALS, time is a burden, a heavy weight. In one of the essays in the book called, Night, he writes about the long seven hours in bed unable to move and waiting for the morning to come. He has the time just like you and I do but he can do nothing with it. All he has are his memories of the past. He is like someone in solitary confinement trying to stay alive within himself. He says, " there is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated, by those not exclusively dependent on them... Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name. My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them."

I am preaching on New Years Day and so I have been thinking about time. I have written several sermon drafts. I thought it would be an easy week to write a sermon. It has not been. Someone suggested spending the hour of worship on Sunday in prayer and singing. I have considered it. But, I have come up with a word to say. Probably, too many words. Time is an important commodity. We all share it. Or we waste it, or kill it,  and then we wish we had more of it, for it flies.

 Eugene Peterson says that the Teacher in Ecclesiastes (he calls him the Quester) is necessary reading for Christians today because we have the propensity to go off on our own - trying to be human by our own devices, and desires. Ecclesiastes, he says, sweeps our souls clean of all "lifestyle" spiritualities so that we can be ready for God's visitation revealed in Jesus Christ. Ecclesiastes is a cleansing read, it is repentance, a purging; we read it to get scrubbed clean from illusion and sentiment, from ideas that are idolatrous and feelings that cloy. It is an expose and rejection of every arrogant and ignorant expectation that we can live our lives by ourselves on our own terms. Peterson says.

People will be thinking of all sorts of things New Year's Day. Some will be making plans to change old habits in the new year. Some will be making new resolutions. Some will be reliving the past, some will be focussed on the future. Some will be barely thinking at all after a night of revelry. But, for those of us in Church this Sunday a meditation on time may be a good use of it. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

God is Red

I just finished God is Red, the story of Christianity in China. I could not put it down. What makes it so compelling is that it is a series of interviews by the author with Christians, many of them old enough to have lived through the wars and Chairman Mao's reforms. It is not a history but more like a book of snapshots about Christianity in China over the past century. China is so large that a book like this can cover only a portion of the whole country. This book's main setting is in the rural South of the country. Most of the people are poor villagers. Yet, the revolutions and reforms that shook China over the past 100 years impacted every day of their lives.

The author is Liao Yiwu, a writer and an outspoken critic of the current Chinese regime. A poem he wrote about the government crackdown at Tiananmen Square landed him in prison for four years. His works, including a book called The Corpse Walker: real life stories; China from the bottom up (2008), are banned in China. Yiwu claims to be an unbeliever but his work brought him into contact with a Chinese Christian, a doctor who was active in the Chinese underground church movement. This doctor had given up a highly prized position in big city medical practice in order to do missionary work in the mountainous regions of southwestern China. Yiwu had never known a Chinese Christian. Like many of his fellow Chinese he had only been exposed to government propaganda - Christianity was a religion of the Imperialists and a "spiritual opium" of the people. There is a sense that Yiwu was going through a rough patch in his own life and was intrigued by the Christians and the message of the gospel but this book is not about him and his search for truth. Traveling with some of the Christians he meets he is afforded access to a number of vibrant Christian communities and this is the power of the book. The World Christian Database estimates there are 70 million Christians in China today. When the Communists came to power in 1949 all the western missionaries were expelled from the country. At that time estimates are that there were only 700,000 Christians. China has been such a closed society that little was known about this growth and the nature of the church in China today. It has been a closely guarded secret.

I remember reading mission stories about Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission which began it's work in the 19th century. Taylor was a pioneer missionary who did not dress western and try to make the people like western Christians. He was criticized at the time for adopting the local culture and trying to assimilate Christianity to the local cultural practices when he could. It is an inspiring story and it was a long tough slog to make even one new convert for Christ. Yet the missionaries from China Inland Mission hung in there until they were expelled and in many of Yiwu's interviews of the older Christians the impact of the "seed planting" by the early missionaries is evident.

It is the story of the endurance of the Christians through all the years of persecution and suffering that is the real story here. No one knows for sure but the government put to death many many thousands of Christians because they would not renounce their faith, or acknowledge that their highest allegiance was to the Communist Party rather than God. Many Christian leaders spent the better part of their lives in prison or in forced labor camps. Even if they were spared prison their lives were greatly restricted and very poor. Yet, the church grew. One is reminded of the early Christian leader, Tertullian, in his defense of Christianity, writing that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Thus, it seems so in China, as well.

After Mao died, the government tried to deal with their "Christian problem" by registering churches with the government. There is 'freedom of religion" today as long as the churches come under the sponsorship of the Communist Party. The Party is the official head of the church in China. This is an untenable arrangement for many Christians. Their primary loyalty is to Christ not the Party. So, they are seen as unpatriotic and they are watched closely and continue to suffer persecution. Yet, it is the underground or house church movement that is growing.

Another story line that is not developed is the growth of the church in the cities. There is a rabid hunger for all things western in modern China as the wealth of the people grows. Christianity is seen by some as the religion of the west so it is desirable as are all the trappings of western culture. The younger affluent Chinese do not seem to be as discriminating about whether they go to a registered church or an underground one. It is the western experience they are after.

There are many conflicts and controversies in Chinese Christianity today and this book only offers a glimpse of some of those. One is left wondering though whether the greatest struggles in the history of Christianity in China are still to come as China continues to modernize and it's western - like affluence grows.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tebow, again

I was watching the pregame chatter before the Monday Night Football game. It was Boomer and Key, CC, Coach and TJ -the ESPN lineup of former players who comment on the games. I thought I was at a revival meeting. They were all believers - in Tebow. Tebow the football phenom who has led his team, the Denver Broncos, to a 7-1 mark since he took over as quarterback. He has turned the ESPN commentators from agnostics to believers in that same time, too. It seems he has converted most of his critics into his fans. Those who were saying he had no chance of making it as an NFL QB are now singing his praises. This past weekend when Denver was down by ten points in the last minutes of the game there seemed no chance Tebow could pull this one out. Even after he drove his team down to the Bears goal line and then threw a touchdown pass into the end zone, there still seemed like he had no chance to win it. Chicago had the ball with under a minute left! All they had to do was run the game clock down to zero and they had it won. But then the improbable happened. Their veteran running back ran out of bounds stopping the clock. With 46 seconds left which in the NFL is a lot of time. Tebow took over. A couple plays later Denver was around midfield - 50 some yards away. They sent their field goal kicker out - a guy named Praeter (no kidding pronounced like Pray to) and he nailed a 59 yard field goal forcing overtime. Then in overtime the same Bear running back who ran out of bounds fumbles! And the same field goal kicker kicks a 51 yard field goal! Tebow wins again! Actually, Denver got the credit for the win. But the way Denver won had people saying things like it was miraculous. And Tebow's fame grew in stature with FOX Sports and ESPN, and others.

While the sports commentators are tripping over their tongues saying Tebow's miraculous run has a lot to do with his fervent faith (not just faith but fervent faith), at the same time, they want to say his faith is not the reason for his winning streak. What is the reason? Well, it's his leadership, his skill set, his belief in himself and .... his fervent faith. While Tebow does not downplay the importance of his faith, he is clear that God is not picking winners and that football is a team game so it is a team effort not just one player. Yet, others are not so sure. Even his own pastor was quoted as saying this week that Tebow is enjoying the special favor of God rewarding him for fervent faith.

Tebow is a good football player, maybe a great one even. He has only played 11 professional games so he has a tiny body of work,as they say, to make a judgment. But, he was a winner everywhere else he has played. Florida won a lot of games while he was their QB and he won the Heisman as the best college player in the land. So he knows how to win football games. He has won lots in a row before. He has always been a team player. There have been other great athletes who were Christians with a fervent faith. Reggie White, Kurt Warner (a pretty fair QB in his day) to name two. Bobby Richardson was an outspoken Christian player with the baseball Yankees in the Mantle era. All these players enjoyed great success. They played on great teams. They also knew great failure on the field, too. They didn't win every game. They had losing streaks. They made mistakes and had bad days on the field. Tebow will too. He is on a great run now. It will come to an end (perhaps this week when they play Tom Brady and the Patriots) sometime. He will lose some, too. He may be the reason for the loss. He will hear his critics loud and clear again. Faith does not depend on wins and losses.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Some Good Reading in 2011

Right now I have on my reading stack a book by N. T. Wright called Simply Jesus and one by Edward Oakes entitled, remarkably, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy - subtitled A Catholic and Evangelical Christology. I am reading them together and thinking about a Sunday School class in 2012. Both are very good so far.... Also my daughter in law, Jess, was raving about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and when she raves I take notice and it will be on my best books of 2011 list when I am finished! But what kind of a reading year has 2011 been up to now? Interestingly, of all the books I read this year, about 1/3 of them were on my kindle! I still have a love-hate relationship with the thing. I love the convenience of it, and Marcia loves the fact there are fewer stacks of books around the house, but I hate what it's doing to the book stores around the country. There's nothing better than a day spent at a great bookstore like Powell's in Portland (although my wife would never let me stay that long - it is big enough to get lost in for quite a while though!). Our local bookstore is going out of business and the owner sited Amazon and Kindle as two of the main reasons. It causes me great pain knowing how I am contributing to the demise of the local bookstores I love. Not enough pain, apparently, to keep me from buying on Amazon and reading on my kindle! So here are some of my favorites this past year:

If you ever wondered how deep the riches of Bible reading are, read Deep Exegesis by Peter Leithart. An amazing book about learning or relearning how to read Scripture.

In the Bible field, too, I read a new commentary on Jonah by Philip Cary which led to many new insights on this overlooked but significant Old Testament prophet.

Eugene Peterson's memoir, entitled simply Pastor, was a personal choice for book of the year. I love Peterson and have read everything he has written. As I have said before, I would not (still) be a pastor today without Peterson. I never would have made it. Loved this book.

In history, I read in some big chunks. After reading Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time I wanted to know more about the fascinating family of Harriet Beecher Stowe so I read a new history of the family and the book by David Reynolds called Mightier Than the Sword and new biography of Harriet's brother, Henry Beecher Stowe called The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate. Henry Stowe was one of the first mega church pastors leading a church in NYC. He was also one of the first whose fame proved to be his undoing.

I discovered Tony Horowitz who I would call a popular historian. He is not an academically trained historian but he researches his subjects by getting out there and experiencing his subjects firsthand and writing about why the history matters today. In Confederates in the Attic he joins up with some civil war reenactors to tell how the civil is still being fought today. In A Voyage Long and Strange and Blue Latitudes he traces the routes of the early European explorers to discover how their "discoveries" are still impacting the "new world" today.

I find anything Adam Hochschild writes to be worth reading. This year I read his story of the very unpopular anti-war movement during World War 1.

In fiction, I liked Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, and John Irving's Last Night at Twisted Creek.

Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba in 1962. He was 11 years old. The first volume of his memoir tells the story about how life in Cuba changed when Castro took over and his second volume tells the amazing story of his journey toward a new life in America as a refugee. He was on his own! His parents who he thought would be following him to America never did (his father never did, his mother did years later). The books are: Waiting for Snow in Havana and Waiting to Die in Miami.

Always up for a good theological conversation, I liked Rob Bell's Love Wins although admitting that fact can get you tossed out of the Evangelical Church. Bell's writing is engaging and provocative. He likes to stir things up and pick fights but that is not all he is doing. He is asking the questions our culture is asking of the Church today. The witness of the Church is in real trouble. It is perceived as isolationist, intolerant, and anti just about everything. How will we have a witness if no one is listening or cares anymore what the Church is saying. We may have quarrels with the answers Bell comes up with but we have to deal with the questions if our witness is going to be credible today. It is amazing how much fear and anxiety within the Evangelical Church his book prompted. Seems we would rather excommunicate the messenger than listen to the message - which was, hey, real people are wondering about this stuff - how are we going to deal with it?

The witness of the Church needs to make a difference in society. Daniel Walker in God in a Brothel raises the issue of sex trafficking and how the Church can make a difference there. Bob Lupton who has ministered among the poor in Atlanta has written a very wise book about how the Church can help people and not harm them with their charity and good works. Good book to read for any Christians who want to "serve" others. It's called Toxic Charity.

Steve Jobs had more of an impact on us than maybe anyone else in the past 50 years. Everyone, it seems, carries around some device Jobs had a hand in creating. Some of us can hardly be without his inventions. They are shaping our lives: how we work and how we play. At a recent holiday gathering everyone was ipodding, or iphoning, or ipadding at various times. Out of town family members were present on the screen of the imac pro. Our grandchildren are more literate in the use of "I" devices than anything else. It's the brave new world of Steve Jobs. He was a brilliant, innovator whose passion for technology found a hunger in the marketplace for the same. In fact, his genius was to know what we wanted before we knew what we wanted and then make us want it. His biography, Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson is important for many reasons. Not only for the impact Jobs has on our lives but for the impact technology has on our lives. Jobs was famously relationally challenged. He had a hard time relating to anyone. His book is an attempt to let his children know who he was. He was a rude, insensitive and obnoxious boss. He had few friends and he was not known for loyalty to them. He had no faith other than in himself. His book tells the story of a life that was phenomenally successful in the business world and tragically unsuccessful in the relational world of family, friends and faith. It is a story of our times. There really is a disconnect between technology and people, things and relationships. We all deal with it every day. We all have to make choices. There is only so much time in every day. What do we want to be good at? What will last? What really matters? We need to keep asking ourselves those questions in an increasingly "I" world.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Steve Jobs

Nearing the end of his life Steve Jobs reflected on his death with his biographer, Walter Isaacson. He said, I'm about fifty - fifty believing in God. For most of my life I've felt there must be more to our existence than meets the eye." He admitted that since he was near death he might be hedging his bets a bit hoping for some kind of afterlife. He wanted to believe something survives death. "It's strange to think you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away .... but on the other hand, he said, maybe its like an on -off switch and click you are gone." "Maybe that's why I never liked to put on - off switches on Apple devices."

There is no doubt Jobs was a genius and that he influenced our culture more than any other person in the past 50 years. His inventive genius will put him right up there with Ford and Edison. Just look around the next time you are in a group of people and observe how many are holding a product that came from the fertile mind of Steve Jobs. Some might say he didn't really invent anything, he just made some things better. Some might say that he didn't really produce anything people cannot live without. Both statements are true. Yet, he made things people want. He made technology cool for the common person. His products are not for the techno geeks - you cannot get inside an Apple product to take it apart and see how it works. You can't attach all kinds of other devices to it to make it do what you want to do. It does what Steve Jobs wanted it to do because he had an uncanny sense of what you and I wanted it to do. He made a lot of money making things and then showing us how much we wanted them before we knew we wanted them. His genius was partly in that. And partly in knowing how to make technology cool and wanted. He controlled the whole process from creating the idea to designing the product to engineering it to marketing it. What you hold in your hand is exactly the way he wanted it. It is what he wanted. And he made all these products interconnected. The i devices plug into the i computers and sync with itunes where you just purchased the latest media to play or view. He controls the whole experience.

Isaacson explores where this obsession to control came from. Jobs was a controlling CEO who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He controlled his diet, his homes and furnishings, his cars, his family - he even took control of his cancer treatment protocols. Isaacson locates this need to control in the fact that Jobs was abandoned by his father. Jobs was never reconciled with his father although he knew who he was. He never forgave him. He never got over it. In a sense, he was never going to leave anything else in his life up to chance. It's odd that he was a risk taker in the steps he took with so many of his products and management decisions. But, he didn't really leave them up to chance. He was involved every step of the way and he had great confidence he could do what he set his mind to. And he could make you do what he set his mind to make you do (after all look at the devices you own). He famously made his employees and "A" teams do much more than they thought they could. In one story, he told the CEO of Corning who ended up making the glass for the iphone that he could meet the specs Jobs wanted in six months time. The Corning CEO told him is was impossible; they didn't even have a plant producing that glass at the time. Jobs told him to get his mind around it and get it done. He did.

Jobs did not make many friends. Or, he lost as many as he made after Jobs alienated them. He didn't seem to care. He didn't need people. He had many admirers but few could get or stay close to him. He was alienated from a daughter he had from a previous relationship and he even abandoned her for many years denying he had any responsibility for her. Later on he was married for 20 years and had three children but he was away from home and their lives a lot. There was a distance between them and their father. One of the reasons he gave his biographer for this book he wanted him to write was so that his children could get to know him because he had not been there for them while he was alive.

There were very few people Jobs trusted. It is hard to think of more than a couple after reading this biography. He surrounded himself with bright people but he was the smartest guy in the room. From very early on he was labeled special and that's the way he saw himself his whole life.

It must have been a kind of shock not to be able to control your own death. He was working on new Apple products right up until the days he was too weak and in so much pain he could not. His spiritual guides were Buddhist principles. It was again about control. He controlled his body through diet and fasting. He didn't smoke or drink (although he credited his use of drugs in earlier days with his bursts of creativity). He had ascetic tendencies to discipline the body in order to nurture the spirit. But, dying is a letting go. No one is in control. Jobs had thought about reincarnation and perhaps he hoped his hopes and dreams would be recycled that way. That's a kind of control, too. But as I read his life there was no mention of faith. Not faith in others and no faith in God. Only a kind of faith in himself.

In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford which was after his cancer diagnosis he spoke frankly about death. He said thinking about death was a clarifying experience - it helped him know what was truly important to spend time on. He challenged the Stanford grads to remember their time is limited so they would not waste it living someone else's life. Then he warned them not to be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. In essence, he was saying don't trust anyone but yourself. Trust your heart and your intuition, he told them, nothing or no one else. Those two things know who you want to become.

That was Jobs secular credo; it sums up the way he lived. By many standards Jobs did more than ok for himself. But in the end, the man who left nothing to chance, did not have a clue. Without dogma, or Faith, or the support and prayers of faithful friends, he entered eternity leaving it all to chance.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Game 6

It wasn't a great game. It was entertaining, for sure. I would once like to hear a player say, after a game like this, we won but we were lucky. Instead of saying we never give up, or we always find a way to win, or we wanted it more than they did, etc. No, the Cardinals were lucky. Either team could have won a game that had plenty of sloppy moments. The Cardinals third baseman dropped a little league popup. The Cardinals centerfielder rushing in on a flyball while calling out to the shortstop who was rushing out - to catch it! It was clearly the centerfielder's play. This same allstar centerfielder got picked off third base! The Rangers first baseman bobbled an easy groundball in the late innings that led to a Cardinals run. Then, there were the managing decisions. Why was Mark Lowe out there in the 11th inning when CJ Wilson was warming up, too? Lowe faced one batter and gave up the winning home run. But the biggest piece of luck in the game was the Rangers rightfielder's misplay of a ball hit over his head that allowed the game to be tied in the 9th inning. The Rangers had the game won. They had two strikes on the batter. There were two outs. They were two runs ahead. And the batter hit a ball over the head of the Rangers rightfielder. When he was supposed to be in a defensive posture designed to prevent that from happening. No balls hit over the outfielders heads! Except in the case of a home run. This went over his head for a triple scoring two runs and preventing the Rangers from celebrating. As luck would have it, the Cardinals won. Not a great game, not a classic, but a lot of fun to watch.

By the way, I read today (source: Tyler Kepner in the NY Times) that Josh Hamilton said God called his extra inning home run that almost won the game for the Rangers. He said God told him he was going to hit a home run. What God forgot to mention was that it would not be the game winner!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Gospel of Moneyball

I saw Moneyball the other night. I had read the book when it came out. If you don't already know it's the story of Billy Beane, Oakland A's general manager, who was faced with building a competitive baseball club when he had millions of dollars less than other ball clubs to work with. So, he turned to statistics to lead him to undervalued baseball players who could still play and win ballgames. It was a novel idea at the time. Old timer baseball guys did not understand it. They were used to going by baseball instinct and gut feelings and knowing - just knowing - how a guy would perform in the future by watching him take some at bats or field some ground balls. It was baseball know-how vs the new science of baseball. You could take a guy with an MBA from Yale armed with a manual of new kinds of statistics like OPS which means on base percentage - someone who may have never played the game and value his advice over a well seasoned baseball grunt spitting tobacco juice, cussing, backslapping good ole boy, who knew the game, for crying out loud! It was unbaseball like, it was unAmerican, it was unorthodox. But, it worked and in the past decade has become the way baseball does business. Now,even the rich teams do what Billy Beane did.

In the movie, Beane explains his scientific method this way: don't bunt, don't sacrifice, don't steal - these are all low percentage ways of getting on base. Take a walk - who cares if you get on base by a hit or a walk. The point is to find guys who get on base. If your not on base, you can't score a run. It was unorthodox and the oldtimers did not like it. Instincts, bunting, stealing, sacrificing - this was the way the game was meant to be played. When Billy traded one of his best players and sent another one down to the minors, his assistant told him, you can't do that! They are not going to like it. He said, don't worry about what they think. If you believe it is right, then do it.

Of course, I was thinking about how often in life we don't do that. We do what we do because it is the way it has always been done and we want to avoid taking the flak for changing it (I am thinking of the Church, in particular, here). We don't want to chance the unorthodox. Now, to switch gears here, I believe in Orthodoxy when it comes to the Faith. But, I think we can do Orthodoxy unorthodoxly (if that's even a word). I think we have to. Jesus was totally Orthodox but he ran afoul of the religious establishment of his day because he went about Orthodoxy unorthodoxly. There are many ways to do Orthodox. We have to change things up sometimes. Or we end up with what has been called Dead Orthodoxy. An Orthodoxy that no one cares about. An Orthodoxy with no life in it.

Billy Beane could have taken his paycheck and been satisfied with fielding a last place team. Instead he shook things up, and found another way to field a better ball club which was competitive. He took the heat of the baseball establishment for doing things differently from the way they had always been done. It was a risk. As his assistant pointed out, it could have cost him his job. He had faith in this new way of looking at building a baseball team. It was the same game but a new way of looking at how it was played.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

All is Grace

Brennan Manning has been singing Amazing Grace for a long time. He is 77 years old and his last book is just out. All is Grace is the title and the theme of his life. Manning led a fascinating life. He was a soldier, a Catholic priest and a much sought after speaker and retreat leader who spoke at many Evangelical conferences and institutions. He wrote many best selling books on grace and popularized the phrase, ragamuffin gospel, which meant God loves us -and even likes us- the way we are. His books and sermons are filled with great stories of how God's grace was made real to him. As a priest, Manning lived in France with the Little Brothers of the Poor and was part of an experimental Little Brothers group in Alabama. For Evangelical audiences he was a unique blend of classic spiritual disciplines, and a passionate relationship with God that led him to get involved with the kinds of people that were on the fringes of society. One year he might go live as a contemplative in a cave in Spain and the next year might find him ministering among the urban poor. What endeared him to many people was his honesty. He was a fallen, broken human being who was loved by God, and many of us fallen, broken human beings were deeply touched by what he said and did.

Yet, according to this last book, he was never completely honest in his speaking or writing. There was always too much of himself and it was slanted in a way that would make him look good even when he was trying to look bad. His life was a search for human friendship and approval. Like most of us. In this book, he tells about his relationship with his parents and family. His mother wanted a girl and instead she got him, he writes, and never was he allowed to forget that. He took his first drink at 16 and alcohol took over and controlled great chunks of his life. Even though he was in rehab several times, he would always relapse. Even on his cross country speaking trips, he managed to fit in week long drunken binges. On the night before his mother's funeral he got so drunk he blacked out in a lonely hotel room and missed it the next day. When he was about 40, he renounced his priestly vows so he could marry a woman who had two children from a previous marriage and who he met at one of his spiritual retreats. He did not do this lightly but took a year of discernment to seek God's will. It took him seven years to make sure he was doing the right thing. Marriage and becoming a father to her two children were the happiest experiences of his life. But, he says, he did not do marriage well, his alcoholism wreaked havoc on his marriage. Yet, it lasted 17 years and he gives most of the credit to his wife for making it that long.

When he left the priesthood, his Catholic conference and retreat speaking dried up. Two full years of speaking commitments canceled overnight. His Irish Catholic family who had been proud of him when he was a priest, disowned him for awhile. His Catholic friends ignored him. Yet, out of this crisis, came an inquiry or two from Evangelical organizations asking him if he was available to speak. One was Young Life and that began a relationship of speaking and leading staff conferences that lasted for years. Another was with Mike Yaconelli who was associated with Youth Specialties and organized a national Pastors Conference every year. Manning was a regular speaker and retreat leader for these meetings.

In later years, as Manning struggled with his highs and lows, his sobriety and drunkenness, his imperfections, he pulled a group of men together which became known as the Notorious Sinners. Yaconelli, who wrote a book called, Messy Spirituality, was part of that group. They met every year. They were a support and accountability group for Manning and for each other. They strove to be as honest with each other as they could. Manning did not always appreciate their honesty. Yet, they loved God and loved each other.

Today, Manning, suffering from the ravages of alcoholism, needs almost constant care. This last book was written with the help of John Blase. Manning could not have done it alone. Like most of his life, Manning was deeply aware that he could not do it alone. In this book, it is as if, before he died, he wanted to make sure that was perfectly clear. He was a failed, flawed human being who depended totally (even when he tried to fake it) on the grace of God. And God was there, as Manning, often said, He is very fond of me. He trusted that the light of God would shine through the cracks in his life. And it did. All is Grace.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Improbabilities of Baseball and Faith

In one of the most exciting and improbable nights of baseball this season -or any season- the Boston Red Sox lost their bid to gain a spot in the American League playoffs and the Tampa Bay Rays gained a spot. On the last day of the season the Sox lost a game to the Orioles they had to win and the Rays won a game with the Yankees they had to win. In that season ending game the Rays were down 7-0 after 7 innings and had managed to scratch out only two hits and the Sox were ahead after 7, 3-2, heading into a long rain delay. With a combined four innings left to play it looked like the Sox would at very least end the day tied with the Rays (if they lost to the Orioles and the Rays lost to the Yankees) and have to play a play-in game with the Rays the next day.

What happened next was improbable ( note: I am depending on an article by Nate Silver in the NY Times for these statistics). In the ninth inning of the Sox - Orioles game when the Orioles had two outs and nobody on and were losing 3-2, the odds were 95.3 % in favor of the Sox winning. The batter was down to his last strike and Jon Papelbon, one of the premier closers in the game, was on the mound for the Sox. 95. 3% seems too low. The Rays chances of pulling out a win against the Yankees when they started the 8th inning down 7 runs were down to 0.3%. That's 300 to 1 against them winning. In the ninth inning after they had scored 6 runs but were still down to their last out their chances were only 4.2% of winning. Plus, the Rays pinch hitter had two strikes on him and he was hitting .108 on the season - and he had only one hit in his last 45 at bats! But, he hit a home run to tie the game. Then Evan Longoria hit another homer in the 12th inning for the improbable win.

More improbabilities: the Sox began September with a 97.7% chance of making the playoffs. When you put all these improbabilities together there was one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together as they did.

[If Bud Selig has his way and expands the wild cards to two teams this great night of baseball would never have happened - both the Sox and the Rays would have been guaranteed a playoff spot. Don't do it, Bud!

Theologically, I got to thinking about the Improbabilities of Faith. What were the chances of anyone escaping the Great Flood? Or, of Jonah surviving in the Belly of the Great Fish? Or, of Pharaoh letting his slave labor force go? Or, of the Virgin Birth? Or, the Incarnation? Or, the Resurrection?

Most ballplayers on the winning teams said that the reason they won was something like the grittiness of their ballplayers, or the never give up attitude of their team or the confidence they had to believe they would win no matter what. Had the other teams won their players would have said the same kinds of things. That's what ballplayers say at times like that. No one says we were just lucky but luck played a big part in their wins, too. Papelbon doesn't locate, or hangs a curveball or a split doesn't split. Carl Crawford doesn't get to the ball that fell in for the single that won the game. It's the last game of the season for the Yankees and they don't have to win so they bring in Scott Proctor to close out the game instead of Mariano Rivera. Lucky, the Rays don't have to face Rivera in the ninth inning!

Luck changes the odds. Theologically, we call it grace. Grace changes the odds for us. So Jonah is saved, and Mary says yes and Jesus is born, and the grave is empty on Easter morning. And what are the odds of you and I believing, and repenting and having our sins forgiven and receiving the gift of eternal life. Not as good as the Sox losing or the Rays winning. But grace trumps the odds.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pat Robertson on Alzheimers

Like many people I was saddened to see Pat Robertson's latest comment hit all the main media sites this week. Robertson was quoted (and the video evidence is readily available) saying that it is morally justifiable for a man to divorce his wife if she has Alzheimer's disease. He was responding to a caller who was asking if it was alright for a man to date another woman if his wife had the disease. Yes, Robertson replied, but divorce your wife first. His in studio partner questioned Robertson's reasoning reminding him of the marriage vow, "til death do us part". Robertson said that Alzheimers is a kind of death. His wife is gone so he is justified in seeing another but he should divorce his wife first and make sure she gets custodial care. I don't really care what Robertson says. But many people do. For many people he is one of those very visible faces of Christianity and so when he speaks, people do listen, and they form opinions about the Christianity he espouses. He has said some outrageous things in the past like when he defended China's one child abortion policy, and when he identified God's judgment with the 9/11 attacks and the hurricanes that hit New Orleans and Haiti, and on and on we can go. Russell Moore, dean of the Theology School at Southern Baptist University, wrote in an online editorial in Christianity Today that "sadly, many of our neighbors assume that when they hear the parade of cartoon characters we allow to speak for us, that they are hearing the gospel .... they assume they are seeing Jesus...but they are not."

Moore said Robertson's comments are more than an embarrassment, they are a repudiation of the gospel. Christian marriage, he wrote, is an icon in Scripture of the relationship between Christ and his Church. Paul says husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church, and gave his life for it! Moore states that a woman with Alzheimers can't do anything for her husband. There is no romance, no sex, no companionship but according to Scripture a man loves his wife as his own flesh so he can't sever the relationship just because she is not useful to him anymore.

In fact, there may not be a more powerful way to live out Christ's sacrificial love than by remaining with your spouse and caring for her or him if they do become incapacitated. There surely is no explicitly Christian reason for leaving him or her!

Moore adds that "it's easy to teach couples to put the spark back in their marriages, to put the sizzle back in their sex lives. You can still worship self and do all of that. But that's not what love is. Love is fidelity with a cross on your back. Love is drowning in your own blood. Love is screaming, My God, My God why have you forsaken me."

I remember reading about another public figure. He was the president of a Bible College. His wife got Alzheimer's and he quit his job to stay home and care for her. He gave up his writing, his speaking, his teaching, his life as it was to love and to serve his wife til death do them part. That is the image of Christian love and marriage our -put my self first- culture needs to see. It is a true picture of Christianity. Unlike the thoughtless remarks of a tv Christian this week.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I had never heard of Missoni until today. Undoubtedly, you have since I posses not an ounce of fashion sense. I am fine with jeans and a pullover shirt of some kind. I live in a place that has no fashion sense either and I am ok with that. So, I was intrigued to read that Target's online store was shut down yesterday by the overwhelming demand for a new Missoni line specially made for Target shoppers which I think means upscale but cheap, cheap chic, may the be phrase I am looking for. Even celebrities who can afford the real Missoni stuff that sells for thousands are into cheap chic. I looked this stuff up online. Today the Target website is up and running although unfortunately much of the Missoni stuff is out of stock already. Not that I was going to buy any but lots of people other than me must have. It is nice looking stuff. It's mostly women's wear as far as I could tell and if my wife bought a dress or something from there I would be happy with her choice. It didn't seem any more expensive than JC Penney. So I guess I am wondering why pay thousands for expensive Missoni instead of $40. I know it's the name. I know it's the company Missoni keeps. I know about brand identification. Still I can't quite get my mind around paying so much money for an outfit just because of the name, or a pair of sneakers, or a hat or tshirt. Yet, that is what we do. Makes no sense whatsoever. We do it with cars and appliances and restaurants and just about everything. You can't watch a sports event of any kind on tv without being constantly assaulted with brand names and that's not even during the commercials. You can't read the news on any website without being distracted by ads all around the borders, sometimes popping up right in the text and other times blinking in the margin. I guess we need to sell more stuff. The economy, we are told, needs us to buy more stuff. Missoni wants to sell more stuff so they partner with Target. More people hear about their brand like I did. Target wants to upgrade their image so they partner with Missoni. They want to put some space between themselves and Walmart. People who shop at Target wouldn't think of shopping at Walmart, I guess is the thinking. I know we are all affected by this brand business. Hard not to be. As I survey my apparel today I have on: Adidas socks, Levi jeans, Merrell shoes and a Mountain Wear pullover fleece. I probably paid a couple hundred for the whole outfit. I could have paid less shopping at Walmart and buying their brands. I cannot say that I did not think about the brands I was buying and what it said about me, the wearer. Somewhere in my heart of hearts I must want people to know that I am a cool, ex-jock who loves the outdoors. So while I can cast a critical eye at those who go gaga over Missoni and pay for it, I need to ask myself why it is so hard to live an unbranded life?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

God in a Brothel

Just finished a new book published by IVP by Daniel Walker. After Walker became a Christian in college he wanted to work in the area of Christian development in the third world. When he was unable to find the job he was looking for, he followed his other passion, law enforcement, and became a police officer in his native New Zealand. Then a job opened up combining his two main interests as an investigator and Christian work in the third world - for a ministry that tried to rescue sex trafficking victims around the world. Walker's book, God in a Brothel is a hard hitting account of his years as an investigator. His book has two main purposes. First, he provides an overview of the sex trafficking industry which he has seen firsthand and up close. It is not a pretty picture and I am sure he has spared much of the grim details. Children as young as 5 are available in many places in the world for sexual exploitation by adults. This probably does not come as a surprise to most people but it is not something we like to think about. This was Walker's world for many years. So, the second purpose of the book is more confessional. Walker talks candidly about how his experiences as an investigator affected his personal, spiritual and marital life. He was mostly unprepared for what he found in the sex trade, and he had to learn what he needed to know by his own experience. He experienced as many failures as successes it seems. He explains how difficult it is to become part of that world and enlist the help of local law enforcement to extract the victims. He ran into a web of collusion between the sex traffickers and local law enforcement along with government officials. Seems the sex trade is such a lucrative business many people look the other way. When Walker would arrange a bust, somehow the news of the raid was often leaked ahead of time. He was able to save some sex slaves but the ones who were hidden or relocated at the last minute are the ones who haunt his memories to this day.

Obviously, the greatest price he paid was personal. His job was to convince the sex traders that he was a legitimate sex tourist. So, he was put right in the middle of the ugly, glitzy, sexually hyped atmosphere of selling sex, selling bodies of young girls. He details how at first he had the attitude of a hero come to the rescue of these young victims. Plus, he had God on his side so how could he fail. He was filled with disgust and hate for the male perpetrators of these sex crimes. From his high horse, he had a hard time admitting what his experiences were doing to him. When his missions failed at times, he wondered why God let him fail. The faces and stories of the victims he met ( he paid for time with the girls, got to know them, covertly recorded their conversations, and made excuses why he did not want sex with them) haunted him when he failed to save them. He felt personally responsible when he could not rescue them. Sometimes, he was able to rescue them but the aftercare he arranged for them failed and they wound up right back in the same place or a worse one. He felt like he was carrying the burden of rescuing sex trade victims himself and was critical of other Christians who were only interested in personal salvation and whose prayers were solely about personal problems like good weather and curing a bad cold. Gradually, his work came before his marriage. He was not able to discuss with his wife what his work entailed. He and his wife were growing apart during his long absences from home. The ministry he worked for either didn't understand this or didn't see the need for counseling because apparently he never received any.

Walker was alone. He worked alone. Many times he was in dangerous places with no back up. If he was found out, no one ever would have discovered his body. One of the most profound parts of his story is how he bought into the Christian myth that following Christ meant he was supposed to be ready to sacrifice - his life, his marriage, his personal emotional health - and God would be pleased and take care of him. No one helped him see how wrong he was. He had no ministry team to help him find balance when he was getting himself into trouble. Most importantly, he was not able to see the warning signs that he was being pulled deeply into temptation. Rather, he was filled with self righteousness as he compared himself to the men who were abusing girls to satisfy their lust. And he was critical of a church which he saw as too individualistic and too inner directed to care much for the injustices he was experiencing daily.

He details how he had set himself up for a great fall. It's a powerful story and one with a great lesson. Christ put us into a Church for a reason. We are not meant to be long ranger Christians out saving the world by ourselves. We are sinners who are in need of forgiveness and grace, and systems of accountability, and a great deal of honesty and transparency in relationships. We need to learn all these things. Especially, when we are involved in areas of great wickedness and evil -even for the sake of Christ - we need to be part of a team of brothers and sisters in Christ. For we can and will be tempted - even by the sins we deplore. Walker also is right to be critical of the Church. The Church needs to be in the world - right in those places Walker was - and in other places like those. That is where we need to be. Walker has taken what he has learned and begun a ministry to the victims of sex trafficking that churches can become part of. It's called NVader. Check it out.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Strong Women

Ive been reading Eugene Peterson's memoir, The Pastor, this summer. One of the stories he tells is how his mother planted the seeds for his later decision to become a pastor. Growing up in a small town in Montana there were lots of miners and cowboys and few churches. Peterson's mother was an itinerant Pentecostal preacher. On Sundays, Peterson would accompany his mother as she led worship and preached in makeshift sanctuaries all over the countryside. Often, the meetings were in tents. Peterson describes the excitement of hearing his mother preach the gospel to the largely male audience. Then when Peterson was about ten, his mother stopped preaching. It was only later in life that she told him what happened. Some men approached her after one of the meetings and told her it was unbiblical for a woman to preach. They quoted a couple of New Testament verses to shut her up. It was much later in her life when she had discovered a better hermeneutic and she resumed her ministry.

This summer I have been doing some study in Exodus preparing for an adult Sunday School class on the Life of Moses in the fall. Exodus begins with the stories of several strong women. We are told their names while the name of the most powerful person in all of Egypt goes unmentioned. Clearly, he is not as important as the midwives who resist Pharoah's orders to kill the male babies. Their courageous resistance saves many lives. Pharoah's own daughter and her servant save the baby Moses. John Goldingay comments:"Like Genesis, the women in the Exodus story show that they are not people you can assert too much headship over."

The Bible is full of strong, and faithful women. Their stories are woven throughout the pages of the Bible. One can find verses that seem to indicate women should be silent in church, or should not teach men, or should not become pastors, or preachers. One can find just about whatever one wants when verses in the Bible are taken out of context. But a proper Biblical hermeneutic (principle of interpretation) puts these verses in context, a whole Biblical context. And when that is done, it is hard to justify telling a woman, just because she is a woman, that God did not call her to be a leader ( pastor/preacher/teacher) in his church. Or that God's word says she should shut up.

Cross Controversy

In the days after 9/11, as workers cleaned up the rubble that had been the Twin Towers, one image that we kept seeing was that of a 17 foot high cross shaped steel Ibeam. It became a symbol of hope amidst the physical and emotional devastation of those tragic days. For the past 5 years that cross has been on display outside a nearby Catholic Church. Late last month it was moved to the National Museum and Memorial Site for 9/11. Not surprisingly, it has aroused controversy. Atheist groups among others are suing to have the cross removed siting a violation of Church and State. Since the cross is not a symbol that means anything to them, they are saying their rights are infringed upon. In addition the inclusion of the cross has caused emotional harm. Their suit alleges that unbelievers have suffered "dyspepsia, depression, headaches, anxiety and mental pain and anguish" from the inclusion of a cross at this national memorial site.

What does the cross mean? That is at the heart of the controversy over the 9/11 memorial site. In the New Testament it is not a symbol of hope. There is no indication it was even a symbol of Christianity for hundreds of years. Who would wear a cross around their necks? At the time of Jesus the cross was a symbol of cruel punishment. The Resurrection was a symbol of hope. Not the cross.

In Matthew 16 when Jesus tells his disciples that there is a cross in his future and in theirs, Peter, for one, tries to talk him out of it. No one thought this was a good idea. Crosses were not good for people. They should be avoided at all costs. Which was the point Jesus was making. The cross is a sign of the cost of following Jesus.

Many major world war battlefields are dotted with small white crosses to mark the sacrifices of those who died. Like the 9/11 cross these crosses are symbolic of the hope that something good will come out of the sacrifices of these lives. In some general sense these crosses say that these people have not died in vain. We mark their deaths this way and honor their sacrifices.

The cross of Jesus marked a sacrificial death as well. Jesus died on the cross for our sins the Christian gospel states. The cross is the means of the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation. More than that, Jesus states in Matthew 16, the cross marks the shape of the ordinary, everyday life of Christians. Daily, we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

This was and is a hard saying. Peter certainly had a hard time with it. Later on Paul would write that the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Everyone had a hard time seeing how the cross could be good news.

Today we need to ask ourselves, what does the cross mean to us? Is it a political football? Is it a political statement that fires up emotions when questions are raised about whether it should be placed in public places or not? Is it a symbol reserved for special events or cemeteries? Or is it an everyday reality for us followers of Jesus who are trying to heed what he said, and "take up our cross and follow him."

Win Win is a Winner

Win Win just out on dvd. Good film about a low powered lawyer who can barely make ends meet. He has about two appointments a day and they are not paying much. He and his wife have two small children and she stays home to take care of them. They live in a modest home and drive an older car and dress simply. Paul Giamatti plays the lawyer/husband and he delivers his usual solid performance. Ordinary life forces many choices and some of them involve us in complicated situations. We find it hard to explain our decisions. Some times there are no good explanations. Giamatti's character and his family are trying to do the right things but even then it doesn't always work out the way they planned or hoped. There are second chances to make things right - if people are willing to grant them. Relationships are messy at times but if people care, they can be worked out. Win Win is a winner. Rated R for language with several f bombs. No nudity, sexual situations, or violence (with the exception of several violent take downs on the wrestling mat).

Thursday, July 14, 2011

MLB Almost Allstar Game

I watched half of the MLB allstar game this week. It was like an "almost" allstar game because so many of the real allstars did not show up. Some were injured, although, the fan questions how injured, really. Some were pitchers who pitched the weekend before and so were not available to pitch. If the allstar game really mattered maybe, the fan wonders, if the allstar pitchers should be held back so they could appear in the game this is supposed to be for the fans. Then, there are those allstars who felt like they needed the rest more than the allstar game needed them. Derek Jeter was one of those allstars. He said he was emotionally and physically drained from his pursuit of the milestone of 3000 hits which he reached the weekend before the allstar game. At this halfway point in the season, most of the ballplayers could use a three day rest. Jeter among them. It is a grind to play this game almost every day. But, it is a game. It is not life. It is not as emotionally stressful as serving in Iraq, or in one of our public schools. It is not as tiring as working construction all day. It is not as vital to our communities as fighting fires or keeping the streets safe. And the ballplayers are paid very, very well for their labors. Especially the allstars. On top of Jeter's salary which is mega millions he is autographing baseballs and shirts, and bats commemorating his 3000 hit milestone. An autographed bat will set the fan back $1100. Not blaming Jeter. Fans want the merchandise so there is a market for it. Just saying ballplayers are well compensated for their work.

If the players feel like it is too much to show up for an allstar game and they need rest more showing up for one more game, then why doesn't MLB just have a three day interlude in the season. It's a joke and an insult to the fan to watch an allstar game with "almost" allstars.

The Ten Commandments

Most of us know what the Ten Commandments are. We may not be able to list all of them. Most people could tell you what one or two of them are. But we know they are a list of God's Rules. We know they must be important. Some of us remember when they were posted in public places to remind people of their importance. We can read them in the Bible in a couple minutes. Do not steal. Do not lie. Don't commit adultery. Do not kill. If we think about them for longer than a few minutes our minds come up with questions and reservations. Is it always wrong to lie? What if a lie saves a life or a relationship? What about killing? In a war? Or in self defense? What is adultery and why is God against it? It seems pretty out of date.

Even though the actual Ten Commandments take up only a few verses in the whole Bible, their ethos is fundamental to understanding what it means to be God's People in the world today. They need interpretation because history changes and the challenges we face today as God's People are not the same ones that Israel faced. But, it's amazing how often the Ten Commandments keep turning up in the Bible. The many nuances of the Ten Commandments are explored in the Books of the Law, and in the prophets and in the New Testament, as well. Jesus spoke about them in the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul references them, too. It is assumed that God's People know them. They are part of our theological foundation. We are meant to build our lives on their foundation. They are a short list on purpose so they can be memorized and passed on to our children. But, to memorize them is only the beginning - that is not all we do with them! As the Bible shows us, we continue to explore them and interpret them in the many changing situations of our lives. They are most certainly not a static list of rules; they are a living, breathing source of inspiration and guidance throughout our lives. They guide our relationship with God and with each other. The first half speaks about our relationship with God and then moves right into our relationship with others and how we treat others, and how we value life, and what kind of life God desires for us. It is a personal manifesto but also a community document. It was given at first, to describe what a community of God looks like. It is our identity as God's People.

We can read the Ten Commandments quickly but this Fall in church we will explore how each commandment is picked up over and over in the Bible and study their many nuances. We will see how they are used to describe and explain what is relevant in our lives right now and how they can be life giving in our community.

A good place to begin would be to memorize them.

The Beechers

This summer I read Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time. It has been called one of the most important books in our nation's history. I would agree. President Lincoln himself gave it credit for turning the tide of popular opinion overwhelmingly against slavery. It is one of those books we all know about but few of us have read. Then, I went on to David Reynold's book, Mightier Than the Sword, which tells about the influence of Stowe's book and the pushback from Southern authors. Then, I wanted to know more about Stowe's famous and fascinating family. She was one of 13 children born to the most influential Puritan preacher of his day, Lyman Beecher. Beecher began his ministry in New England and was the leading voice of Puritan theology in the church. Later, he was called to Cincinnati (the "west" at that time) to bring a renewal of Puritan theology out there. He became president of Lane Theological Seminary which became a hotbed of abolitionism. It was there Harriet became a Stowe marrying Calvin Stowe who was a professor at the seminary. Her brother, Henry, was the closest to Harriet of all the siblings both in age and passions. He became a famous preacher and reformer. His antislavery preaching changed the minds of many northerners and inflamed the minds of just as many southerners (and some northerners too). After taking the pastorates of two small churches out "west" (in Ohio, and Indiana) he was called to a prominent pulpit in Brooklyn which at that time was a thriving, growing, 100,000 people, most of whom worked in Manhattan. From a two room house where Henry Beecher and his wife scraped by he suddenly found himself in one of the most influential pulpits in the country. Plymouth Congregational had many of the wealthiest businessmen in the country on its board. As the church prospered under Beecher's preaching so did his financial fortunes. He was a spellbinding orator at a time when public speaking was the main form of entertainment in the city. Nearly all of his sermons were published in a newspaper owned by a friend and trustee of the church. Soon, he was nationally known and famous. He was a counselor to presidents; Lincoln even came to meet him and listen to him during his presidential run. People wanted to hear what Beecher had to say on most topics. He was a strong opponent of slavery and was not afraid to say that one could not be a Christian and own slaves. Beecher found that his father's Puritanism didn't preach well and as he aged his theology changed. He was never much for study although he read widely but you get a sense from his biographer Debby Applegate (The Most Famous Man in America) that he preached what seemed to work the best. In his later years, during the Civil War, remarkably, he seemed to waffle on his antislavery views. Not that he changed them as much as he moderated them. It was almost as if he was hiding something or hiding from something and the confusion in the pulpit masked a confusion in his own life. He had become famous and rich. He had several homes and trips to California and even Europe which were underwritten by his wealthy church members. He was home less and less and as he was in demand as a speaker all over the country. He developed several highly questionable relationships with women in his church which eventually got him into trouble. He had too many irons in the fire and he finally got burned.

To be fair to Henry Beecher he had to deal with a lot of pain and suffering in his life. His mother died when he was young, and he buried several of his young children. His strong antislavery views and the theological battles of the time must have drained his energies. He was vulnerable to the applause and praise of men and women and it seems like he believed it. He got sloppy in his theology and in his personal life. There were not many friends or family who would confront him. If a friend questioned what he was doing, he would simply move on to some other adoring supporter of whom there were many.

Beecher was a flawed man. He was a great preacher but some of his gifts became his greatest curses. God used his vision and his passion - and his talents - to make a strong case against one of the most critical social issues in our history. His was a prophetic voice - one of the most powerful at the time. His life shows us it is never easy to be a prophet and few of us can handle the dangers of wealth and power.

Friday, July 1, 2011

No Uncle Tom

I was reading an interesting essay in a collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson called, The Death of Adam. This particular essay was about McGuffey (of the McGuffey Readers) and the abolitionists. McGuffey's readers were a staple of American education in the mid-1800s. Some of the readers were used in high schools and colleges. Not too much is known about McGuffey -he was born in Pennsylvania and became a college professor and Presbyterian minister. Although he preached and taught for a long time he left no lectures, sermons or books behind. He settled in Cincinnati where he was president of Cincinnati College and began the public school system in Ohio. Cincinnati in the mid 1800's was a pro-slavery city and yet it was also a hotbed for the abolitionist movement. Lyman Beecher, who produced 13 children with two wives (the first one died when her nine children were still young - many becoming leading social reformers), was a famous pastor in the East but was challenged to come West and lead a new seminary that was attended mostly by students who shared a radical commitment to end slavery. Lyman Beecher was a respected preacher in his own right but one of his sons, Henry, would go back East to the Bronx and become even more famous than his father. One of Beecher's daughters, Catharine, was a leading educational reformer, abolitionist and college president, and she was approached by the benefactor of the McGuffey Readers, William Smith, to be the first editor of the Readers (if she had taken the job would they have been called Beecher Readers?). She turned down the proposal and suggested McGuffey. McGuffey gathered an amazing array of writers for the Readers - most of them with solid reform and abolitionist credentials. Since the Readers became so popular all over the country they had to write with great tact and not show all their radical colors. One of the writers for McGuffey was Harriet Beecher Stowe. She, of course, is best known for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin which Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting her said, so this is the little woman whose book caused this great war (or something to that effect).

My point is that after reading this essay on McGuffey I realized I had never read Stowe's book. It has been named one of the most important books of American history and yet, how many people today can say they have read it. We all know names and themes from the book, like, Simon Legree the cruel slave holder and, of course, Uncle Tom himself who has become identified with those who were seen as traitors to their race because they did not stand up to the majority white culture. Since I was one of those who thought he knew what Uncle Tom's Cabin meant without ever reading it, I decided to read it. What a surprise! It was not what I thought it was. It is a very well written book, an amazing work. Stowe wrote at a time when much of the country was religious, even the non-religious were reacting to the religion of the day which was Christianity. Most ministers were pro-slavery as an institution. They provided Biblical reasons for slavery or at least did not think they could get away with attacking it. Some who tried to raise questions about it's Biblical basis did not have their jobs very long. Stowe is devastating in her satirical attacks on this majority religious point of view. She is relentless in her ridicule of those Christians who think they are practicing Christianity just because they are mouthing the same untenable beliefs of the majority church. Their practice of gospel Christianity is hopelessly hypocritical. For instance, while speaking about a Bishop who would not question slavery she noted that some of the first Bishops who came before him in the early church were, indeed, Black!). While showing in great detail the unreasonable prejudices of the White culture she was also able to let that culture get inside the skin of Black slaves to feel what they must feel as slaves: when their children were sold out from under them; when marriages were split up; when slave women were sexually exploited; when they were beaten by cruel masters; when they had no freedoms, no rights, no hope. She tells the story about people who are just like "us" for one of the lies that defined slavery was racial: "they are a race that are not like "us". In fact, she shows how the Black slaves were often more Christian than the Christian majority. Her central character is a Christ figure. Uncle Tom is a preacher and a pray-er. He counsels his kin to forgive, to love those who persecute you, to go the second mile, to turn the other cheek, to abhor violence. He is a walking, talking Sermon on the Mount. For what has been perceived as passivity in the face in the justice his name has become synonymous with others who are seen as weak and cowardly in the face of injustice. But, Uncle Tom is no Uncle Tom. There is a strength and power in his life that transformed the way people looked at slavery. His death at the cruel hands of the nasty slavemaster Legree - was a sacrificial death. He died so others might live, freely. His way of non-violence was incorporated later into the civil rights movement and the leadership of Martin Luther King (who was also criticized as an Uncle Tom by some).

Stowe's book may be the most important book in American history that no one reads today.

Friday, June 24, 2011

On Making Excuses Rather Than Giving Help

Whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, he is a stranger; but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh. Say, he is contemptible and worthless; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions. Now, if he has not only deserved no good at your hand, but has also provoked you to unjust acts, and curses, not even this is just reason why you should cease to embrace him in love and to perform the duties of love on his behalf. You will say, he has deserved something far different of me. Yet what has the Lord deserved? While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself. Assuredly, there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature; to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches. It is that we remember not to consider men's evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them. (From Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Getting Away

We just got back from driving 3,000 miles from Seattle to Kodiak. Of course, the last 250 miles are not in that count since we were "ferried" across them. We took about ten days to do it spending a couple of extra days in Anchorage and Homer. The first few days we drove about 6 hours covering 250 to 300 miles. Then, we realized this was starting to feel like the trip was going to take forever so we beefed up the mileage to more like 500 to 600 miles a day and 10 to 12 hours of driving. Once you get past Prince George, BC there is not all that much to see. Except, of course, for wildlife and mountains and gorgeous lakes not surrounded by any commercial interests. We kept a tally of the wildlife we saw: bears, bison, moose, elk, caribou and a couple sheep. I thought about Lewis and Clark who noted in their journals fields covered with bison whose thundering hooves could be heard miles away and seeing the sun blotted out for several minutes as flocks of geese flew overhead and rafting through a river of white feathers only to come around the bend and discover hundreds of molting pelicans. There is not that kind of abundant wildlife left in our country today so it is a thrill to count wildlife sightings in the tens even if not the hundreds. It is awesome to drive through mountain passes as a Spring snowstorm makes it look more like January than June and find glacier fed lakes that no one is making a dime off of. They are just there to look at and enjoy. That is the beauty of this trip. Traffic is light. Must see artificial tourist stops are few. In the midst of the blizzard we saw signs announcing the best cinnamon buns on the highway so we stopped and in a shack we joined other fellow travelers who were already eating the buns and drinking the coffee as fast as the owners could make it. We stopped in Watson Lake for the night after a long day of driving. A German man had refurbished a 1940s pilots headquarters into a more modern lodge with 14 clean rooms. And that was about all you got. But, after some other roadhouses clean is a very welcome amenity. This man talked about making big money in Germany and driving his Mercedes in the rat race. He loves his life now in this remote outpost of the Yukon and he could talk about his love for it for hours. As we left the deserted downtowns of Williams Lake and Prince George and the bustling mining towns of Ft St John and Ft Nelson, we were glad to get to what our German friend found he liked so much: space for wilderness and wildlife. Hours spent driving a two lane highway alone with our thoughts and time for conversation with the person in the other seat. There was no connectivity. No Iphone to check. No internet wifi at the next stop. No franchise restaurants or hotels. No restrooms except the occasional pit toilet. There are lots of ways to "get away" and lots of opinions about what vacations are supposed to be but for my money it's hard to beat a trip up the Alcan.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Darwin's Children

I begin this post by noting that the Neanderthal which plays such an important role in Darwinism was named for the seventeenth century theologian Joachim Neander who was fired from his position for refusing to take Holy Communion. It seems like an appropriate historical reference to the ongoing conflict between religion and science. Neander used to take walks in what became known as Neander's Valley and later on fossils were discovered there. Today a Neanderthal is someone who refuses to see the wisdom of the Darwinian vision of life. They are stuck in the present and cannot learn from the past. They are out of it. They are the ones who would take Holy Communion and think there is something spiritual going on there.

Darwinism does not allow for the spiritual. It's all natural; natural selection explains everything. That's the problem. To Darwinists we are all really just cavemen. In 1871 Darwin published The Descent of Man which presented an entirely naturalistic interpretation of man. There is no difference between human beings and animals. "It's a dog eat dog world" and "it's a jungle out there"- the survival of the fittest, you know. Darwin said that with mankind intellectual faculties were gradually perfected through natural selection so that the more intelligent ruled the less intelligent. This pointed out the problem that the more intelligent were having to support the less intelligent. They were contributing to the well being of society while the less intelligent were just reproducing. Quoting the Scot, William Rathbone Greg with approval, Darwin wrote: "the careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman, fed on potatoes, living in a pigsty, doting on superstition, multiplies like rabbits... while the Scotsman, selfrespecting, frugal, sagacious, self-disciplined in his intelligence, marries late and leaves few behind... so it is the inferior and less favored race that prevails ... prevails not by virtue of its good qualities but by virtue of its faults... Thus, were sowed the seed of eugenics. It was common knowledge that selective breeding was the answer to growing good stock in agriculture. It was Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics which means "born well". He founded the Eugenics Society in London in 1907. His idea was that the corruption of the race by weaker specimens could be corrected by the proper use of eugenic technologies. So impressed was President Calvin Coolidge by this idea that he signed the Immigration Act of 1924 restricting immigration to favored races and nationalities. Indiana in 1907 passed a law permitting the compulsory sterilization of the unfit. In Europe, eugenicist Julian Huxley wrote, " We must be able to pick out the genetically inferior stocks with more certainty and we must set in motion counter forces making for faster reproduction of superior stocks... this is not possible without the alteration of the social system." The eugenics system of helping out the "natural selection" process whenever possible was well underway. With an echo of Darwinism, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, " positive steps must be taken to encourage the flourishing of the fitter because the system itself often works against them." Hitler's National Socialism party took action on these ideas. In 1933 they passed a law permitting forced sterilization based on the work of American eugenicist, Harry Laughlin, who had written of the need to sterilize the socially inadequate classes, including those of feeble mind. [much of the above is taken from Darwin's Pious Idea by Conor Cunningham, pp 179-189]

Marilynne Robinson (her book is The Death of Adam) notes Darwin's belief that the progressive evolution of mankind through natural selection would be perfected by the struggle for survival. He wrote in The Descent of Man, "at some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world." He went on to say in the same book that civilized men should do what we can to insure that the weak do not survive. Just as we do not allow our worst animals to breed so the breeding of weak members of society, ie, the imbecile, the maimed, the poor, and the sick, is injurious to society. Darwin noted that vaccinations preserved thousands of a poor constitution who would formerly have died of smallpox. Most people today ignore this later thinking of Darwin but his earlier work, The Origin of the Species, included this thought in it's title: the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. It makes one wonder how "random" natural selection is and if Darwin did not see a greater purpose in his theory, ie, the survival of the favored races. Darwin's influence is felt today far beyond the sciences. Robinson notes an essay in Time by Robert Wright(commenting on the Bill Moyers PBS series on Genesis) in which Wright stated Science (just another name for Darwinism) has replaced the fables of Genesis. Since Darwin we know Genesis is wrong: human nature is not benign, we have that selfish gene instilled by that other "creator" natural selection. So the main traits driving our lives are selfishness and competition no matter what illusions we might hold of other compassionate qualities. Nietzche, of course, saw where this was going. In his Ecce Homo he wrote that if we look ahead ..."that party of life which takes in hand the greatest of all tasks, the higher breeding of humanity, together with the remorseless destruction of all degenerate and parasitic elements" .... and we saw what that looked like in Nazi Germany. Konrad Lorenz, the biologist whose experiments most of us studied in basic science courses, was a Darwinian and a Nazi who compared the "degenerative types in society to "asocial" cancerous cells that destroy the cellular structure. He wrote that in 1943 and as late as 1973 he was still writing that "our sympathy with the asocial defective whose inferiority might be caused just as well by irreversible injury in early infancy as by hereditary defects, endangers the security of the non defective."

Robinson writes that in place of Biblical Adam Darwinists have substituted a creature who shares essential attributes with whatever beast has recently been observed behaving shabbily in the state of nature. Genesis tries to describe human exceptionalism and Darwinism tries to discount it. From Malthus (an early influencer of Darwin) to Nietzsche to Darwin to Hitler to Freud the impulse has been to desacralize humankind. There is no place in this line of thought for the human soul, for that which makes humans different from animals. The Bible is so little known today that the works of Darwin's latest popularizers like Dennett and Dawkins go largely unchallenged. Similarly, Darwinism is so accepted today as fact that when we hear people talk about natural selection as the answer to everything human, we barely bat an eye. "The modern fable is that science (Darwinism) exposed religion as a delusion and more or less supplanted it." (Death of Adam, 71). "But science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics, or a morality... it can give us no grounds for preferring what is excellent to what is sensationalistic ... and that is more or less where we are now." (71)

The End of the World

According to some Christians, this could be my last post (not that many people would notice) because the rapture is supposed to happen tomorrow. Believing Christians will be taken out of the world as massive earthquakes terrorize those left behind. Over the next five months while Believing Christians enjoy the perks of heaven the rest of the world will endure hell on earth before the earth is destroyed in October. An article in the NY Times today shared the beliefs of a family in Maryland whose parents are committed to be ready for May 21 and the end of the world. The mom quit her job two years ago to go on her mission of spreading the news (good news?). The father kept his job with the federal government at the energy department. They stopped maintaining the house and saving for college for their kids who think their parents have gone slightly loopy. Yet, they go along with it helping their parents pass out tracts in NYC and playing along lightheartedly, like, Mom, do I have to clean my room if the world is going to end.

This doomsday prophecy is the work of self appointed prophet Harold Camping who owns a bunch of radio stations (Family Radio Network) and who has predicted the end of the world a couple other times. Now he says he has it right, exactly 7000 years after the Great Flood in Genesis. Not to spend too much time on Camping's exegesis or theology (dispensational pre-trib rapture which has been around only a short time considering the history of theology), the most interesting phenomenon is the numbers of Christians who are ready to follow Camping's prediction with a radical change of life. Thousands of people across the country according to the Times have spent the past few days making preparations and saying good byes. Tomorrow they will be glued to the tv so they won't miss it.

Now we could begin reflecting on Camping's prophecy and the mini exodus he has created by pointing out Jesus said no one knows when the end will come. Then, we could point out that most Christians throughout history have taught that Jesus is coming back to usher in a new heaven and a new earth, not to destroy the old one and take all the Christians somewhere else. The return of Christ is certain St. Paul said, so we should be ready any time and he exhorted us to be ready by living for Christ daily in the here and now which means you shouldn't have to change what you're doing. There are probably many reasons why some Christians hope to be raptured out of the world tomorrow, high gas prices being one of them, but that is not the way most Christians have read Scripture these past couple thousand years. So, tomorrow, I will be doing some yard work if the rain ever stops and maybe take a bike ride and if the tv is on I will be watching the Yankees - Mets baseball game. If Christ does return, I'll be ready.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

House Hunting

In the vast wasteland of cable tv programming, I still manage to find a few shows on which to waste some time. I rationalize that it is for relaxation before I go to bed (although when I read in bed I am usually asleep in minutes). Or, I tell myself I watch this stuff for the stories they tell. One such show is Househunters on HGTV. Every episode tracks a person, couple or family as they begin their search for a new home. They may be leaving their home and homeland because of a new job or a new relationship or to start a new life somewhere else. You meet these people and hear about their lives - at least a few minutes of their lives- and then you are invited into their search with a savvy realtor who is going to help them find the house that best meets their wish list. Some of the episodes follow Americans who are relocating to some exotic place like Mongolia or some tropical island where they will have to settle for much less than they are used to. Even many European countries offer an opportunity to downsize. Most of the shows however feature Americans who are moving within their own borders. They begin their home search with a wish list: big master bed room, upgraded kitchen with granite counter tops, large master bath, big bedrooms, bonus room, spacious dining and living rooms, and a deck/porch/secluded back yard for entertaining even it's just the pets that are being entertained. The helpful realtor is given the wish list and then he shows them three homes and he and we viewers are allowed to listen in on their critical thinking process. And it is critical, most of what they see they don't like. The kitchen needs upgrades (mostly those granite countertops), the master bathroom needs to be bigger, the closets don't come close to meeting the need for all their clothes, and the back yard is small or lacks privacy. All of the houses shown usually need work which adds on to the asking price which is already at the top of their budget. The impression I get is that these people come with a learned sense of entitlement. The American dream of home owning is one that expects you can own a new home or one with upgrades like a jacuzzi tub, hot tub and granite counter tops - just because you should. How dare some one try to pawn off a home that needs work or has a small bathroom. I feel sorry for the poor realtor who has to listen to their complaints many of which sound pretty petty. "Oh, the colors are awful." What, no double sinks in the bathroom?" I don't know if we can live where we can see the neighbors house from our back yard!" It makes you think that most Americans have a low threshold for suffering. I wonder if most home buyers are like that. It is tv, after all and reality tv is not always what it claims to be. So, I watch it with a grain of salt. Then, I go to bed, happy that I have a bed to go to. First, I turn down the heat, glad I can live in a heated home. When I get up and use the bathroom and take a shower, I am thankful for running water in our house. Then, I make my way to the kitchen which has a coffee maker that runs on electricity and as I sip my first cup it is with gratitude for my Mr. Coffee four cupper. I make my oatmeal on our electric stove and toast a piece of bread in our electric toaster and feel blessed I am not living in a tent. What else do you need? Watching Househunters reminds me what is really important. That's reality.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dawkins on Life

I worked on a post for a while yesterday and today I got to work early to finish it - only to discover that Google Blogger had been down and nothing was posted yesterday! It was gone! Bummer! Joys of technology. In the old days I would have had my handwritten draft on my desk and commenced to rewriting with all its crossouts and dangers of wrist injury and cramped hands. I love word processing but technology does come with its own set of frustrations.

I was blogging about a book I'm reading called Darwin's Pious Idea by Conor Cunningham who is the assistant director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, England. He has authored other books and wrote the BBC documentary, Did Darwin Kill God? which aired in 2009. He is a smart guy. This book is deep in science and philosophy and theology yet it is accessible to those who are not quite as deep - like me. In this book he takes on Richard Dawkins who wrote The God Delusion and is on a one man mission to make God irrelevant (which he believes He is already anyway - he believes religion is an illusion and the Church is the result of a virus in the human mind). He calls Dawkins and his cohort David Dennett ultra Darwinists who have not only got Darwin wrong but have badly muddled their forays into philosophy and theology as well.

In my lost blog I was quoting Dawkins to reference his beliefs regarding human nature that develop from his firm conviction that there is no god. I have not read The God Delusion but Dawkin's thinking process is quite amazing. Because there is no god, Dawkins substitutes the human gene as the primary cause of human growth and behavior. Actually it was the gene that came up with the idea of you. Our bodies, our lives, are merely vehicles to transport genes which have a life of their own to perpetuate. He wrote about this in his book, The Selfish Gene. So, what is at the "heart" of human behavior is not a heart or a spark of life but information technology (from The Blind Watchmaker). Though this might sound strange it has caught on in the popular imagination so that we readily speak about "how we are wired" to explain why we do the things we do. That is pure Dawkins. In fact, it explains everything, especially sex. For Dawkins men are made to sow their seed. Dawkins says: " a male can never get enough copulations with as many females as possible, the word excess has no meaning for a male." (from The Selfish Gene). So, the casual, recreational sex portrayed in so many movies is "just normal" behavior. It should be noted that Dawkins is not the only proponent of this point of view. It is standard evolutionary psychology doctrine. It is how we are wired and we are wired to perpetuate the species. First and foremost, British biologist Ben Greenstein says, "man is a fertiliser of woman." Interesting take on life and relationships. Keep these guys away from our daughters. Must be a fun group to hang with at the local pub.

And this is life for the Darwinian crowd. Here is Dawkins take on life before Darwin. Dawkins says: Intelligent life on this planet came of age when it first worked out the reason for it's own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit Earth, their first question will be - in order to assess the level of our civilisation - Have they discovered evolution yet? Dawkins is amazed, as he says, that humans lived on earth for three billion years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. Of course, that one was Charles Darwin. Our savior. Darwin, Dawkins says, was the first human who put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist. (from The Selfish Gene). Is this guy serious? With that one statement he disposes of Moses, Jesus, St Paul, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and so on and on. Who were they, chopped liver? I guess so. George Simpson in an issue of Science in 1966 wrote this stunning sentence when discussing the most important question that can be asked, What is Man? - Simpson said: " the point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely." Yikes, doesn't it scare the daylights out of you that these guys are running around out there and being mistaken for signs of intelligent human life! Sadly they are and their form of intelligence does have an impact on the rest of us. If this post gets posted - more from Cunningham's book on Darwin's children, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Or pick up the book yourself and make it your summer reading project!