The Scrapbook

The youth group I serve wit has recently started this project to help students look back on their lives and remember what God has done for them and things that have changed for them since knowing Jesus. I think it’s a good thing to do, I once listened to a sermon on the “Art of Remembering” by Matt Chandler and found it really helpful to consider why we recall the past. It’s important for us to keep in mind what God has done in order for us to be thankful, humble and encouraged. The past often provides incredible hope for the future: Mary, the mother of Jesus, had great hope for the future based on the promises that God had kept to her people throughout history. As Christians, we are people of hope and that hope is based on historical acts of God.

But in a culture that focuses on the future and lives in the days of tomorrow, it can be hard for Americans to remember all that has come before. In Latin America, much of life was in the past: people give directions filtered by the way cities used to look–you turn left where the old court building used to be. We remembered battles when the French were forced out–days as important as independence. There were holidays to celebrate the dead and their lives, days to sit at their graves and reminisce about lives well lived and the hope of meeting them again in the future.

The Jews had festivals that reminded them of their past: the Passover, Sukkot, Purim and others. These were days to mark and celebrate how God rescued them, provided food in the desert, freed them and promised a hope for the future of them and their children. There are rituals that go with these festivals, traditions of food and songs, candles to be lit and roles to be played among the participants. The world was built around remembering what God had done, recalling his acts of great love and grace–and then walking forward in hope based on the past.

That’s what we are trying to do for the kids in our youthgroup and the means we’ve ocme up with is to create a scrapbook for each student. If you know anything about me, you’ll know I haven’t patience or time for scrapbooking. I like things in black and white, clean and uncluttered. I don’t do glitter, raised letters or flowered paper. I’d rather weave together a story in words and sing it to you while E plays the banjo and you’re eating my latest rendition of applie pie or cranberry cheesecake. I don’t do crafty. I bake, I write, I sing and I teach. So I have struggled to relate with the scrapbooking, though I understand (and appreciate) the idea of having something tangible for our students to remember the work of God. It’s our attempt to fill a gap in our culture and remind our students that God has done great things for them and so we can trust Him.

It’s an important task, helping them create, remember and look forward while grounded in God’s historic faithfulness. I told one of my girls that it’s important to remember the story of God’s work in our lives. I know that I myself often forget what He’s done and it’s good to be reminded… But a scrapbook? A few of the girls in my youth group don’t like the activity–I can only imagine how the boys feel about something so stereotypically girly. While I applaud the attempt of remembering…I can’t help but think, there’s got to be a better way of doing this….

WHY: leaning left

I mentioned yesterday that I am in the final crunch before exam week and Christmas break. For that reason, I have not been able to research the Supreme Court’s decision on the Sebellius case and the health care laws. While I’m cautious about a number of things on both sides of the health care plan, I have certainly benefited from the system thus far and have some tentative hopes for it. That being said, I also have a number of concerns for not only religious reasons but economics as well.

I read an interesting article recently* and appreciated the moderate stance taken by the author, David Opderbeck. I also appreciated something he said which finally put to words the conviction I’ve been feeling regarding my theology about the health care system…

 

I wonder when “individual freedom” became the sine qua non for Christian social ethics about health care? It seems to me that Christians of all people should be willing to sacrifice some of their “individual freedom” in order to ensure that everyone, particularly “the least of these,” has access to health care.  In scriptural and Christian theological terms, true “freedom” is not libertarian license, but rather is the full participation of a person in God’s self-giving love.  And true “freedom” is never about isolated individuals – as God is a Triune community, so we as human beings can only be truly “free” in community.

Of course, even if we agree that Christians should be willing to give up some “individual freedom” to facilitate health care for others – or, perhaps better, that Christian freedom means moving beyond selfishness —  the question remains whether such care should be provided through government, through private associations, through Churches, through families, and so on.  There is a long and tangled tradition of Christian political theology on all of these questions – and, at least in my opinion, there is no simple right answer.

Finally! Someone was able to express much more eloquently than I can my concern with how many politically conservative Christians approach this issue. My struggle over the past few months has been discerning what Jesus calls us to in serving selflessly and giving to those among us who are in need–and how that plays into allowing the government to take control of health care to provide more access to care and medicine.

But I also wonder what the role is of the church–why have we not done more to help those among us find medical care, why do we so easily abdicate responsibility to the government (or why do we allow the need for government to play that role) instead of demonstrating the love of Christ by caring for people ourselves? The food pantry I attend has medical services during the evening session. I think that’s fantastic–while I’ve not taken the church up on that free service–I’ve watched many other individuals and families utilize that. Should there be other churches offering similar things? Could we use our benevolence funds for that? Perhaps if we did more we wouldn’t need the government to take such a large role in the health care system?

Or, as we watch the government take on that role, how should we react about our money being redirected? Especially as Christians, shouldn’t we remember that the money was never “ours” in the first place rather than grumbling as it’s taken away in taxes that provide medical care for the neighbours down the street? I don’t have a clear answer on this. I’m still processing all of it (and I of course have several reservations on what those dollars pay for in medical care–a la abortions). There are a lot of considerations here, and the Bible doesn’t speak very clearly on this issue…so we have to do a lot of formulating on our own based on some Biblical texts and based on our knowledge of the character of God (who we are to emulate) and the call or mission of the church…That’s a lot of thinking and theological development on this massive issue that is going to consume the country over the next several months and years.

What do you think?

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*I know I’ve recently been citing Scot McKnight quite often as well as those who guest-post on his blog. He’s just had a plethora of worthy things to consider lately.

Semester Ends

We have two weeks before finals and then school is out for the semester. My third semester has been rough but good. I’ve learned quite a lot and I’m beginning to shift several aspects of my theology–or perhaps more accurately, how I process and reflect on theology. I thought I’d share something of that with you very briefly.

I have begun to see myself shifting from systematic to biblical theology. This semester I’ve been in two theology classes: one a basic survey course and the other a more in depth study on the Doctrine of God or theology proper, as my professor calls it. It’s been a great class, one which I’ve really enjoyed and I’ve thoroughly loved reading John Feinberg’s No One Like Him. Feinberg does an excellent job of synthesizing an incredible amount of material and making it readable. I still can’t wrap my head around Whitehead and his process theology but for the first time I have a firm grip on John Hick’s “The Real” and that’s certainly an achievement.

But I’ve encountered a few problems in this class as I’ve worked on various assignments–whether reading Feinberg or studying a different theologian like Jürgen Moltmann. Too often, theologians don’t begin with the Biblical text. Instead, I’ve found that they often begin with a philosophical construct and build from that. I want to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with starting from philosophy, there’s no problem in using nomenclature from philosophy and using all systems and structures available to us. Things like that come from God as he has endowed humanity with so many intellectual capabilities and strengths.

But it frustrates me that sometimes theologians get stuck in their structures and systems. Or, that they are so consumed by the direction of their philosophical leanings that they fail to be restrained by the text that claim to be explicating. I wrote a paper this semester on a theologian who started out so well and ended up in panentheism. His writing was brilliant, it gave me hope and courage for the future! But he fell into problematic theology that ruined it for me. Systematicians are good and necessary people for the church, I’m in a program of systematic theology myself and I consider it highly important. But theologians must also be willing to let the Biblical text be what it wants and say what it says, rather than forcing it into our narrow, finite view. This is why I’m leaning towards Biblical theology: Scripture holds tension much better than our systems and the writers celebrate both the revelation and the confusion of the One who is above and beyond us. This is the weakness of our systems: they create a caricature of God rather than allowing him to be the grand mystery He is.

But I’m still in the theology program and to be honest, I don’t think I’ll be switching any time soon.

I am Beautiful. Really.

I have my yearly physical on Wednesday and I have to admit: I’m most worried about being weighed. I know I’ll want to explain to my doctor that I’ve put on weight but–it’s not my fault. I mean, I work three jobs, go to grad school and have a decent social life. Of course those new five pounds were inevitable.

Today, however, I read a blog on beauty and growing up and I was challenged to reconsider my own thoughts on my self image. I’ve grown a lot, especially in the past year, but there is certainly a long ways to go…

 When we lived in California, my home was the backyard, wide and deep, with a shallow hill over which we soared on boxes that we’d stolen from the trash and recycling. Hours passed beneath the hot bright sun until our skin turned pinkish red and the highlights of my hair were brilliant streaks of blonde white amid the mousey brown. We were children and we were somehow free of the expectations that the world would someday place upon us. In the little house with the big backyard, on the street of run-down families and exhausted lives, we were thriving as we played on the streets, on the dead clover prickles of our lawn, beneath the gnarled branches of the tree that guarded our world.

 In Illinois I first learned about beauty and saw that I didn’t fit. I spent hours outside in the new backyard, reading on the deck, cartwheeling over our first plot of lush green grass, and yet I was always the ghostly white that comes from Welsh and English genes. My hair was pin straight and no amount of effort from my adolescent friends could change it. I was plain.

 High school brought Colorado and with it more affluence than I’d previously known among my friends. The girls laid out in summer, and they used tanning beds in the winter. They highlighted and died their hair all shades of unnatural colours, but somehow it went with the eye make up, the rouge and the laughing smiles that they displayed to the world. I had hips that didn’t fit into jeans in “my” section of the stores and my hair was still straight as could be and mousey brown. I had braces and bright grey blue eyes that looked like the calm water of Oceanside beach—but the boys only noticed the braces.

 College happened and then a phase where I cared so much about what others thought that I let them pick my clothes and dress me up. But I was never myself.

 And then, nearly two years ago, I started cleaning the house I lived in for rent. I hand washed the floors, crown molding, the doors, the tables and counters. My hands were soaked in bleach and vinegar and in the bitter winter of Colorado they cracked and bled. The cuticles tore back and the nails were weak with moisture. Somewhere in those months of scrubbing I found that little girl with her blonde streaks and bruised, scraped knees. She was sweet and laughed more than I remembered. She didn’t mind that my hands were red and wrinkled, she took them in hers and reminded me of who I am and what makes me beautiful.

 My strength, my love, my grace and my dependence on Him are what matter and the beauty of my body comes second to this. And then, the little girl whispered in my ear that my beautiful strength was reflected in the chapped skin of my palms, she whispered that someone would see that and he’d find me beautiful. He’d hug my hips and pinch my side where I am most self conscious. He’d stare at my eyes and stroke my hair. He’d age with me, as the laugh lines turned to wrinkles and the wrinkles began to sag beneath the weight of so many rich, full years. He’d call me beautiful when everything in me lost elasticity and my hair had turned to shades of wisest grey and white, while falling out in irregular tufts.

But what wouldn’t matter would be the man, so much as learning to believe it myself: that God has made me as He wanted and that I am gorgeous no matter the mood of the bathroom scale or the latest fashion trend. I have beauty and worth because of who has made me and because He loves me.

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clarification: I’m certainly not saying I needed a man to tell me I was beautiful. But there are days when I don’t believe it and I count myself blessed to have E at my side to remind me that I am gorgeous and that God didn’t mess up when He formed me. I am beautiful, just as I am.

Thankful

It’s the obligatory thanksgiving post.

I’m sitting beside Ethan on the couch while he reads Killer Angels and the sweet potatoes are boiling in the kitchen. I was supposed to do a Turkey Trot this morning but it didn’t work out so I’m delighted to sit in the quiet of my living room with Ethan beside me as a symphony plays the Christmas Song on Pandora.

The trees outside have lost their foliage, they’ve stood, brave and barren for several days now, skeletal figures of who they once were. That is how the last year has been for me. I’ve been stripped down to the bare reality of my humanity and I’m slowly being scrubbed clean. He’s done this marvelous work of laying to rest the lies I’ve lived under and the ridiculous titles I bore that were not about Him and, in the end, not really true of me either. The days are short but sunny and the cold has not yet settled into our lives. It will come, of course, it will be dry and bitter, full of chaffing winds and lonely winter nights. But seasons pass and the cold will too. The trees outside my window will bud, ever so gingerly at first, and then, one day, they will burst into bloom with newfound life and hope.

But right now, on this very great holiday, it’s still fall. It’s the inbetween holiday: remembering the past and looking forward to future hopes. That’s where life is at too.

I’m so thankful for this journey, so thankful for Ethan walking alongside me. Grateful for provision, for school and for community. We’ve found a delightful church and my words can say what a blessing they have been. We have so many friends, we’ll have two thanksgiving’s and plenty of left overs. In the midst of being pruned and cleaned, my God is very good.

Enter his courts with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.

For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Holiday Week Mondays

It’s Monday in the office and despite the fact that two of my coworkers were here around 730am, you can tell that none of us want to be here. My eyes won’t stop watering, Lisa practically limps to and from the printer as if her feet are deadened to the world with sleepy Monday blues and Jessica came in half an hour later than normal. We have a lot to do. I’ve a project to finish before the end of the month, the advent devotional should be coming out, there’s an appeal to be written and mailed and a lunch to plan, and a thousand envelopes to stuff. But the boss is on a flight back from Chicago and no one wants to be here.

One of my high school girls is working on Thursday–all day. I told her I’d come visit between my first Turkey Trot and dinner with friends. She’s at a retail store that is open all day Thursday and all night into Black Friday. I was in shock when she told me about it and then I almost cried. What’s wrong, America? Why are we working on holidays to allow people to get more in debt with stuff they don’t need? My girl should be with her family, eating too much food and reminiscing about holidays past or running a turkey trot with the youth group; not at work selling clothes and shoes.

In something I recently edited a writer noted that we should be working for “kingdom change” in our every day lives as parents, employees, leaders, couples and students. It’s a rough Monday. It’s 10am and the most monumental thing I’ve done is update a single website and turn in my time sheet. It’s a holiday week and no one wants to be here–I’d rather be buying sweet potatoes, baking biscotti and enjoying a run or some OT work. What would it be like to work on the most momentous of family holidays?

I’ve been wondering, if I was the manager at that store, would I buy everyone lunch? Invite them over for a late night Turkey Dinner? Would I tell them all to call in sick, so I could lock the doors and apologize to the corporation for apparent widespread illness? Would that be the kingdom, breaking in, standing against the status quo and authority? Would I refuse to schedule anyone at all and take the hit for believing that family and rest are more important than profit? Would that be counter-cultural and civilly disobedient in a way that Jesus might have appreciated: to value people more than money?

I don’t know that I have such courage but….it’s something worth pondering.

In the meantime, I’ll be picking up my high schooler for her half hour lunch and buying her something to eat to make the day a bit tolerable.

Gaza

There’s trouble brewing in Gaza. Well, it’s a bit more than trouble. I haven’t researched the current situation enough to give an informed opinion but all of my reading over the past several years has led to the following conclusion:

Israel and Palestinian leaders are both at fault. Innocent people (by western, non-religious standards) have been killed on both sides in this extremely complex issue. I am often astounded by the way that American Christians uphold Israel as though it is a nation of pure motives, who can do no wrong and is always acting in self defense. While it appears that Palestinian militants started this one, I think it is unwise for believers to stand behind Israel so emphatically without care or concern for those on the other side–some of those are our brothers and sisters in the faith, let’s not forget them! I think that instead of taking sides, instead of pointing fingers, etc we are called to pray. There are hurt people, defenseless people, frightened children, desperate mothers on bothsides of those walls and in what is shaping up to be a legitimate ground war, we should not forget one group as we vehemently support another.

This photo is of graffiti on the wall surrounding Bethlehem that divides Palestinians and Israeli’s. The text is Ephesians 2.14. (See the picture in context at Aaron Niequist’s blog)

I think the most important thing to do is not to pray for Israel’s success, for further estrangement between the two peoples, or some apocalyptic end of the world on December 20th by means of an Israeli/Palestinian ground war that goes viral. I think we should be praying for peace. Peace in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the entire region. It has long been a volatile place in the world. As people of peace, we should be on our knees, asking God to work reconciliation in the heart of his creation and we should be about the business of serving those afflicted whether they speak Hebrew or Arabic.

This, I think, is our calling as believers and followers of the Nazarene who told us to be shalom-makers (Matt 5.9) and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5.18).

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News Sources: BBC, Washington Post

Categorically Speaking…

Categories always remind me of Kant. Which means, the Enlightenment and the shifts in how we view knowledge, the world and ourselves. While not attempting to misrepresent history, one might note that the Enlightenment brought about a serious obsession with categorizing, title-ing and qualifying things. The ancient world, though intelligent and philosophical in its own right, was a bit more satisfied with mystery if they couldn’t find a more specific answer to their various questions.

Today, it seems, we have a hangover from modernity that doesn’t like mystery. So we quantify, we label and we want to put things into boxes on shelves that are very neatly organized in alphabetical order by year of origin and expiration date, thank you very much. For this, I’m thankful that we’re moving into post-modernity (and beyond!) as it is more concerned with the holistic person, the story, the narrative, the relationships, etc.

The church, however, is always behind the changing tides of culture, usually by ten to fifteen years. So tonight, at youth group, I got to experience the labels, the titles, the categories. We did a test that was meant to examine how we best relate to God–a good process, since churches and schools often teach one mode of experience as being most common (think three point sermons or quizzes). This is problematic because sermons, especially in Protestant churches, do not cover the full range of ways in which people experience God. This is a reason I’ve come to enjoy youth ministry: we play games, hike, camp, serve neigbourhoods, sing, teach, etc. It’s easier to do a wider gamut of activities and thus impact more hearts in a wider variety of ways. Thus, the quiz/assessment could have been a great tool to help students facilitate their own spiritual growth by alerting them to how they best experience or relate to God.

The problem I have is that not only did the nine categories offered all bleed into each other (they weren’t distinct) but they tried to quantify or qualify things that didn’t need separated. For instance, one question asked if I would rather “stand in the pouring rain for an hour while waiting to confront someone” or “journal about my frustrations” instead. I’m non-confrontational. Ask my roommate. I avoid confrontation at all costs. However, I also avoid journaling like someone avoids the bubonic plague. Journal? Confront? Neither of those sound good. In fact, they both make me really anxious as I’m writing this post. So I left that question blank.

And then the next one.

And the next one…

My “score” was a bit of a mess because I had avoided several questions similar to the one I mentioned. Would you rather read a book? Or hike? Well, I don’t know, is it a good book? Who am I hiking with? Do you feel close to God in a church with liturgy and incense? Or in nature? Um, both?

The nine different options explained how we best related to God, most of my kids experience Him in nature (we do live in Colorado). But what of my students who appreciated activism? That isn’t an option in the church they attend… What about the fact that none of them felt that asceticism was how they related to God? Many of them breathed deeply with gratitude that they wouldn’t “have” to fast because “phew! that’s not how I experience God!”

I’m being very round-about in this post because I’m still processing it all. My struggle with quizzes like this are that they allow us to indulge what we already know we’re good at (hiking, reading, etc) to the detriment of learning new things (fasting, contemplation, et al). But God meets us in radical ways whenever we avail ourselves to His Spirit. When I was in high school, my dad and I drove past a Greek Orthodox church while discussing several individuals leaving our congregation over changes in the worship music. My dad, in his frustration pointed at the church and said, “if your heart is in the right place, you could walk into that church and worship God even if  you didn’t know what was going on.”

I experienced that my freshman year of college in a Russian Orthodox Church, and again in France during a Catholic mass–in Latin, by a french speaking African–and yet again during Vespers in a local Greek Orthodox church last year. I’ve experienced God on the top of 14er’s, on the shores of Costa Rica and in a tiny hotel room in Vladimir, Russia. Because He is everywhere and in His Spirit we are enabled to know Him in every way known to humanity.

I’m frustrated with our obsession to put God in a box, or to put ourselves in a box rather than choosing to know God in all situations, at all times and by all means possible. God doesn’t need categories. The systematic constructs are helpful means for us to start our journey towards Him. But at some point, we must set aside our systems and say to Him, “you are God and I am not. Speak, for your servant is listening,” and then, whether we are in a coffee shop, on a mountain or serving the homeless while fasting, we should be still, we should listen, and we would know him.

This frustration may be somewhat misplaced but…lately I’m just fed up with systems, categories and labels that don’t allow us to be holistic and don’t “allow” God freedom to act however He wishes.

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Donald Miller (an author I enjoy) actually wrote about similar issues on his blog today. It is a much better articulation than what I wrote last night at midnight as my roommate arrived home and started brining a gigantic Turkey. You can enjoy his thoughts here.

WHY: Roommate

I contemplated living alone for a while. I thought: “I need a place to study, a place to bake and not be in anyone’s way, a place to have my HS girls and not worry about inconveniencing, a place to sleep amidst my odd schedule, a place to be away, to be alone, to just be.” 

Well, I couldn’t afford a place on my own.

So instead, I got a super loud, super intense roommate.

E calls her Sassy Stacey. It’s a perfect description. From facial expressions to the snarky way she swivels on her heel, from her teasing manner to the bite in her green chile (yum!) my roommate is a sassy little woman. She’s absolutely fabulous. She’s loud and crazy, her life is too busy and she leaves me love notes all the time–on the table, on my bed, and the ladder to my loft. She loves well, she is strong but wounded as is every human being you’ll ever meet. She’s beautiful and I love her to pieces.

Tonight, after a long day of data entry at work and a noisy night at the food pantry, I came home to her, sitting on the futon under two flannel blankets, knitting a purple scarf. I made myself tea and then sat down beside her to listen to her story of the day. It’s a familiar tale; much like my own. Customers are annoying, inconsiderate, and demanding. Her coworker was slow or too chatty, they ran out of something, the drawer didn’t balance, etcetera, et al. But she didn’t tell me about her day. Instead, she started crying and told me what she’s struggling with these days. I held her hand, sipped my tea and listened.At some point in the evening, she apologized for crying but I shook my head. No, I said, I like it when you cry. It reminds me that I’m not too busy to listen. And it reminds me that I have feelings too.”

“Of course you have feelings!” she practically exclaimed, “you cry over homeless people and old men.”

I laughed and then found tears in my own eyes. I didn’t say outloud as she prattled on with more stress and fears but I did think to myself that this is why I live with a roommate. Yes, money was an issue when I looked for a new place. Yes, I don’t like being a single woman by myself at night with all the odd people living in our world. But mostly, I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted someone to live with me, to challenge me, to frustrate me, to love me and to encourage me. Someone I could build into and serve and forgive when days were hard. I wanted to live with someone because I wanted to be reminded of my humanity and my constant need for community.

Maybe it’s just me but, I think that might be why the body of Christ is so important for believers: to remind us of our fallenness and our absolute dependence on God and one another. More than that, though, the body reminds us of the imago dei and the ways in which we shine like stars in the universe as we grow up together into maturity in the faith. We remind each other of what our humanity is, what it should be and what it will be as we slowly grow into who we are and who we are called to be.

love my roommate.

Militarism and American Christians

Scot McKnight is hosting an interesting post on his blog over at Patheos. It’s written by Preston Sprinkle and is the second* of a three part series on the subject of Militarism and American Christians–it’s preemptive to his book coming out in a few months where he makes a case for non-violence among Christians (and even broader, perhaps?).

The post is here and it’s well worth the read. I appreciated Sprinkle’s position that the Old Testament seems to condemn violence more than ever supporting it. I recently attended a debate on religious violence where one of my OT professors responded as part of a panel. The atheist professor giving the initial lecture claimed, essentially, that all religion has the proclivity to generate violence (especially Christianity).  The professor from Denver Seminary noted that the Noahic covenant (and those that follow) is founded on the concept of non-violence. No man is to take blood or life because that life belongs to YHWH alone. Given that premise, Sprinkle’s explanation of various Old Testament texts makes a lot of sense.

What I struggled to follow was his jump to American politics. I agree that in the Old Testament, Israel was called to see YHWH as the warrior who fought for her and thus they entered battles with fewer men and weapons–it proved that their God had won the battle and not their own military prowess. I’m not sure that can be applied to a pluralistic society such as the United States, especially given that we no longer see battle/war/etc in the same way as the Ancient Near East. In that time everyone saw their god as leading them into battle, so war was not only among humans but also among the gods in their realm. Without that world view today, I’m not sure that Sprinkle made an appropriate leap from Hebrew military standards (or lack there of) to American military. There are also wider problems of theocracy versus secularism in terms of government structure and the questionable suggestion that God would protect the US if we were attacked in the same way He promised to protect Israel (as if the US is somehow equitable in status to chosen Israel).

That being said, as I’m processing my own thoughts on violence and war, Sprinkle’s post was quite helpful and thought provoking and I’m looking forward to the upcoming book.

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Links for those posts by Preston Sprinkle are here (1) and here (2). The third in the series is yet to come.