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.