Saturday, June 3, 2017

Why We Need Latin Americans to Help Us Understand the Bible

I'm beginning to see the Bible with new eyes.

It began with a syllabus. Increased ethnic diversity at both of the universities where I teach has made me more conscious of how "white" and Western my assigned readings have been. With the help of my beautifully diverse Facebook community, I've made the effort to discover books written by Africans, Asians, and Latinos. Armed with a list of friend-approved favorites, I ordered copies of a half dozen or more.

I want to tell you about two favorites. Both are from Latin America. Both are slim, inexpensive, and accessible. Both are rocking my world.

Justo Gonzalez is known for his work as a church historian. But in Santa Biblia, he offers us a glimpse of what it's like to read the Bible through Hispanic eyes. Some of you may object: "We should be reading the Bible for what it says, not for what we bring to it. Our ethnicity doesn't change what the text means."

Agreed. But our social location can prevent us from seeing what is there. We make assumptions about the situations the Scriptures address because we see the world from a particular vantage point—say, white, middle-class, suburban American—unaware of the authors' context and concerns. We have blinders on.

Old Testament Israelites and New Testament Christians have far more in common with the average Latino, African, or Asian than they do with wealthy Americans. That's one reason the perspective of these communities is so valuable. They are a bridge.

Gonzalez is not engaged in a special hermeneutic, as far as I can tell. He is simply reading the Scriptures with his community and noticing what it says. But because of his life experience, he notices things I miss. In some cases, his observations simply add insight. In other cases, he turns my interpretation on its head.

Here's an example from his first chapter, focusing on marginality. Gonzalez takes us to Luke 4, where Jesus gives his inaugural sermon in Nazareth, quoting Isaiah 61. At first, Jesus' listeners are pleased (v. 21–22). Gonzalez notes,
"But Jesus suddenly changed his tune—or at least, it would seem so from the point of view of his audience. Until then he had said that they were at the very center of things. The Scripture was being fulfilled right there, 'in your hearing.' Now he tells him to expect no special privileges. He is not about to do in his hometown the things he did at Capernaum." (Gonzalez, 43)
Jesus brings up two Old Testament examples, Elijah and Elisha. Both prophets went to those at the margins, to non-Israelites—a Phoenician and a Syrian, in fact—to work their miracles. The mood in the room radically shifts. Gonzalez explains,
"This was no longer a message about how they were at the very center of things, seeing the Scripture fulfilled before their eyes. This was rather a warning that they should expect no privileges, for God often works at the margins rather than the center. No wonder they tried to hurl him off a cliff!" (Gonzalez, 43)
Imagine if Jesus appeared in your church this Sunday, announcing that God's kingdom had arrived, and that he was here to make all things as they should be. Great, right? But what if he told you his first plan of action was to welcome exponentially more Syrian and Lebanese refugees, to help them set up shop in your neighborhood, and to live among them? How would you feel then?

We tend to read Scripture as though it is God's good news to us. But in the case of Luke 4, the good news indicts those who prefer to keep all the kingdom benefits for themselves. I never noticed this until Gonzalez showed me.

In her book, The Scandalous Message of James, Elsa Tamez brings a similar perspective, but instead of offering examples from various places in Scripture, she works her way carefully through the book of James.

James is a practical book, addressing matters of wealth and poverty, among other things. Tamez explains how a Latin American reading of the book is different:
"For James the oppressors are the rich (plousioi). He does not hesitate to point them out as such. His antipathy toward them and his sympathy with the poor is undeniable. Interestingly enough, many of the commentaries on James dedicate long pages to the rich, thus consciously or unconsciously attempting to relativize this contrasting picture that James paints." 
"This great concentration on the rich is to be expected: on the one hand, many biblical commentaries from Europe and the United States are written in situations where there are many rich people in the churches. How does one tell these members that according to James there is no room for them in the church? We should note that many of the points made in these commentaries are accurate enough; what is striking is simply the angle of the perspective and the special concern for the rich. A Latin American reading of the epistle, on the other hand, fixes its gaze on the oppressed and dedicates long pages to them, their sufferings, complaints, oppression, hope, and praxis." (Tamez, 21, emphasis added)
By now it should be obvious why these books will not just be important for students of color, but for all of us in the classroom. Reading outside our tradition overcomes myopia.

I've heard it said (I don't remember where) that the Bible is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. Reading the Bible with people from other cultural and socio-economic backgrounds reinvigorates the Bible's message and sharpens its critique of our own complacency.

This won't be easy, but our brothers and sisters from Latin America stand ready to help. Together we can learn more, love more, and become more. Are we willing to listen?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Under Our Noses

We were in the mood to explore. Up for something new. Felt like we needed to get "out." But where?

Falls in Downtown Oregon City
(Photo: C Imes)
Then I had an idea. I doubted it would be anything dramatic, but there was a waterfall nearby that we'd only passed by and never seen up close.

We've lived in our small, historic town on the Willamette River nearly three years now. This waterfall was right smack dab in the downtown area. We pass it multiple times each week. It's about time.

I tried to make it a secret adventure but our resident teenager and pre-teen insisted on knowing where we were going. I told them. Their response: "Seriously?" They opted out, so Danny, Easton and I piled in the car. (This post is my "I told you so!")

Oregon City 7th Street Elevator
(photo: C Imes)
Hardly more than five minutes from home, we parked and walked a half block to the top of the stone stairs. Our unique community has an elevator that doubles as a public street linking upper downtown to lower downtown. But it was closed for the evening, so we took the stairs. And that's where I wanted to be anyway, because I had never climbed them. I didn't realize that the waterfall went right beneath them. What a pretty spot! Leafy green trees created a tunnel of shade for our descent.

Taking the Stairs in Oregon City
(photo: C Imes)
In the mood to meander, we headed past shops and restaurants and across the highway to the edge of the Willamette River to see what could be seen. We've driven by that spot hundreds of times in three years. Other than a few fishing boats and kayaks, we had never noticed anything worth writing home about. But we were in for such a surprise!

Our Surprise Visitor: A Sea Lion! (photo: C Imes)
We stared at the water, foam still swirling from the Willamette Falls. Danny noticed the river seemed almost alive in places. Then suddenly the surface broke—two sea lions! We're more than an hour drive from the coast. How can this be? But it was.

I-205 Bridge over the Willamette
(photo: C Imes)

We watched the sea lions for quite some time, following one fellow as he lazed his way down the river, poking his head up for air now and then. (It turns out the local fishermen are deeply concerned. There are at least 30 sea lions this year, and they're eating too many salmon!)

West Linn-Oregon City Bridge
(photo: C Imes)
By the time we headed back to the stairs and up to the car, I was all the more convinced: You never know what you'll discover if you slow down. Linger longer. Park and walk. Take it all in.

There's a whole lot of life happening right under our noses.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Life After Heaven

I've written about heaven before, saying that we typically get it wrong, that it's not what you think. So what am I to make of a man who claims to have been there and back again? How credible do I find his story?

Paul Pastor, writer and fellow alum of Multnomah University, saw my blog post on heaven and asked me to read this story and blog about it, too. At first, Paul was also a skeptic. But Steven Musick had a story to tell and needed help telling it. After Paul met Steven and heard his story, he was convinced that something was different about this heaven-and-back experience. Together they wrote this book. 

Life After Heaven: How My Time in Heaven Can Transform Your Life on Earth is an amazing story, but there's nothing flashy or sensational about the way Musick tells it. Instead, he invites us to see how God has made a difference in his day-to-day life by giving him a glimpse of what comes next. He relates his difficult childhood, early successes, and the unexpected illness that sent him on ahead.

"This Place must be heaven," he writes of what happened when he died. "This Place—heaven—is physical, real. In fact, it's more physical and real than the world I have known. It's not an ethereal, disembodied state, as some people might think. Senses, all my senses, are brilliant and deep. There is weight. There is movement. My body feels an overwhelming sense of freedom. It is wonderful. Totally free." (40)

After a brush with death and 5 weeks in a coma, Jesus sends him back and Musick wakes up.

He is crushed. After experiencing heaven, Steven's longing to be with Jesus again is almost debilitating at first. As he explains, "Heaven is all you want once you've tasted it" (155). He faces an incredibly painful recovery and over a decade of limited activity because his lungs were deeply scarred by his illness.

I don't want to spoil Musick's story by telling you what happens next, but through it he discovers that God is at work in profound ways right here on earth. Musick begins to realize that heaven is not as far away as we might think, and that we can experience it here and now if we're sensitive to what God is doing. He tells one story after another of "bubbles," moments when the kingdom of God shows up on earth, enveloping, exhilarating, fragile, and momentary.

Steven is honest about his doubts, his unanswered prayers, and his awkward moments. He takes no credit for his frequent encounters with kingdom of God. He offers no formula for guaranteeing divine presence. But he wants to awaken our sense of anticipation: "There's more that we should be experiencing in the here and now. Our expectations are far too low. Heaven is much closer than we think." (176)

It's been 40 years since Musick visited heaven. Why tell his story now? He wants it to make a difference in our lives the way it has in his. 

"Do we all need to have a near-death experience to overcome the fear of giving God the totality of our lives, time, and resources? To give him our fears of loss? of suffering? of death?" (166) Musick hopes not. He aims to fill us with anticipation about what awaits us after death so that we're unafraid to embrace the fullness of life here. 

Life After Heaven won't hit the bestseller lists. It's not sensational enough. The story is not exactly gripping. But Musick doesn't want it to be. It reads like a conversation over breakfast, a gentle nudge to look deeper, to long for more, and to be available to participate in the kingdom of heaven here and now. 

That's what I like best about this book. It unveils the intersection between heaven and earth and gives us a taste of the vibrancy and healing of the presence of Jesus that we can begin to experience right now. Call it what you will—heaven, the kingdom of God, eternity, the new creation—we have a lot in store for us! 

When Jesus travels around Palestine preaching, he isn't telling people the good news about what awaits them after death. He doesn't preach "heaven." He claims that the kingdom of God is near. He offers glimpses of that kingdom by healing people, casting out demons, telling stories, rebuking wickedness. His victories over the kingdom of darkness are tangible, earthy, working their way into the nitty gritties of life—bleeding, disease, conflict, ambition, death. He doesn't primarily show people how to die well, he shows them how to live well.

And that's exactly Musick's message. If you're curious, read his story for yourself!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Confronting Modern Day Slavery—closer than you think

The music was loud enough that I could feel the bass pulsing through the floor. The vocalists were captivated, joy flooding their faces. The musicians were in sync. The environment was perfect. A young worship leader, flown in from Germany, stood at the microphone with his guitar. He meant business. The room was full—college students crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, faculty, guest missionaries. It was a recipe for revival. We were standing, singing our hearts out. Some hands were raised. Tastefully-designed slides gave us the lyrics. He who the son has set free is free indeed. 

This was not where I expected to confront modern day slavery. Not here in the Pacific Northwest. Not at a Christian University. But there he was—a real slave—at the end of the row directly in front of me. He was standing along with everyone else . . . but his eyes were captive to his phone. If he had been texting, I could have understood. Relationships are important to him. Maybe he's dealing with a family crisis. But that was not the case. He was playing a game. I cringe just typing those words. I could see the handcuffs cutting into his flesh.

A few times he turned off the screen and slipped the phone into his pocket. But within 60 seconds it was out again, and he was back into his game.

I was baffled. He wasn't sitting in the back row, wasn't making any effort to hide his addiction. He was sitting on the inside aisle in full view of everyone, including this professor.

And he was not alone. At one point everyone in my row and all 8 guys in the row in front of me were on their phones. At the same time the guys behind me were snickering. I looked out across the auditorium. Those in my row seemed to be especially distracted, but I could see phones out all over the room.

During the skit.
During announcements.
During worship.
During the main message.

I wanted to stand up and cry out. I wanted to interrupt our speaker and ask for the microphone. I wanted to say Here, let me hold that for you so you don't miss out. Don't you see you are enslaved? Don't you see that you have lost the art of being human? Lost the ability to be truly present? You are going to need these skills as an employee, as a husband, as a father, as a leader, as a friend.

How did we get here? How did this tiny computer manage to become the only thing that matters? The only thing alluring enough to capture our attention? Why have we let it fragment our focus into smaller and smaller pieces until we can no longer remember what it means to sit in silence and listen? When is the last time we have sat across from someone and looked into their eyes?

From time to time students come to see me. They sit in my office and bring their toughest questions and doubts out into the light—How could a good God allow this? Why doesn't God answer when I pray? How can I be sure what I'm supposed to do with my life? The Bible makes me angry, too angry to pray. I'm having an existential crisis. I'm struggling to keep up. This is all really new to me, so I might need some extra help. These are not the students who scare me. These students are my treasure—the ones who fill my heart with hope for this generation. These students are engaging life with eyes wide open. Their yearning for answers is their sure path to success.

It's the numb ones who scare me. Those who cross campus with faces illuminated by the eerie light of their screens. It's blinding them to the chains that entangle and weigh them down. They are tired. They feel pulled in so many directions. They never have enough sleep. Never enough time to get everything done. And they don't realize that they have willingly surrendered to this life of bondage. They don't even remember what it's like to be free.

Photo credit: John Blanding for the Boston Globe
Do you remember?
Do you remember family dinners filled with conversation?
Do you remember drives in the country soaking in the view?
Do you remember watching something incredible live, without trying to capture it so you could update your status?
Do you remember feeling challenged by a live speaker?
Do you remember meeting someone in line?

Don't misunderstand me. I have a smartphone, too, and I love social media. But at some point it ceases to be a tool and becomes a slave master.

Ironically, the speaker earlier this week, AJ Swoboda, had given us a powerful challenge. We need to care for creation, he said, because creation is the most effective argument for the existence of God. To look up and see the stars far from the city lights inspires awe. To hike above the treeline puts everything in perspective. If we fail to care for this planet, we will lose the most powerful evangelistic witness we have.

And if we don't look up, we'll miss it, too.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Adventures in Prayer . . . and the Barriers that Hold Us Back

It's a special joy to walk with students as they wrestle with how to relate to God. Sometimes questions come up in class discussion. Other times its a conversation with a student in my office. This semester I get to "look over their shoulders" by reading student reflections on their small group meetings. Students are responding eagerly to these meetings, where they meet to talk about their spiritual lives with one another, using A Spiritual Formation Workbook.

Why is God not answering me when I cry out to him?
This week I tried praying 5 minutes a day. I'm embarrassed about how hard this was for me!
What is the point of fasting?
I'm so angry at God right now. How can I pray?
How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?
If God is good, why wouldn't he make it easier to communicate with him?

I'm realizing that one of the biggest barriers to prayer is the idea that we need to pray a certain way or with a certain attitude. We so easily lose sight of the invitation we have to come into God's presence just as we are. This week I encouraged one student to go for a hike in the woods and rant at God, telling him how angry he is. There's no way to get past the anger until it's expressed. I told another student that she doesn't need to swallow her disappointments so that she can come to God cheerfully. God wants us to voice those disappointments in his presence. I had the privilege of praying with another student for physical healing.

The other major barrier to prayer is busyness. We don't pray because every moment is filled with sensory input of other kinds – music, headlines, newsfeeds, conversation, podcasts, Netflix, homework. We've lost the art of sitting in stillness. One student plans to try a social media fast. Another practiced sitting quietly for 5 minutes each day this week. Inspired by the story of Frank Laubach, others are intrigued by the idea of inviting God into every moment of their day. Is that even possible? And if so, what would be the benefit?

A third barrier is unfamiliarity. We can't expect to become spiritual giants overnight. Spiritual growth takes time, and spiritual disciplines take practice. I'm praying that God would reward each student's efforts to connect with him and would stir their hunger for more.

Prayer is like the old game "Othello" — it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master. Prayer is nothing more and nothing less than a conversation with God. That seems simple enough. But creating space for prayer, learning to truly open up in prayer, exploring new ways of praying, discerning God's voice, coming to love prayer . . . these things take time. It's the adventure of a lifetime!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Leaning In: One Year Later

Just over one year ago, I decided to read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Now I'm looking back and taking stock of what I've learned. I reworked last year's blog post into an updated article for The Well, published today on InterVarsity's blog for Women in the Academy and Professions. 
. . . By the time I got my dissertation back, dripping with red ink, I was already a month into teaching. I had less than two weeks to cut dozens of pages and tighten my arguments. During those two weeks I didn’t use impressive PowerPoints in class, didn’t grade anything, and didn’t meet with students outside of class or attend any special events on campus. But then my defense draft was submitted, and my teaching rhythm returned to normal.
And I learned that Sheryl Sandberg was right. I had almost said no because it didn’t seem convenient or practical, because I might end up too busy. But saying yes worked out fine. My students survived, even though they weren’t the center of my universe for a couple of weeks in February. Most importantly, I finished my degree and finished out the spring semester, gaining a wealth of practical experience in the process.
You can find the whole article here.  I hope my journey inspires you to lean in, too!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Hidden Figures: America's Pathway to Greatness

Imagine if your best work went unnoticed.
Imagine if you wrote a report but someone else's name went on the cover.
Imagine if that same someone else was paid a great deal more than you were.
Imagine if they resented your presence in the office.
Imagine if everyone else in the office shared that opinion and made it obvious.
Imagine if you couldn't speak up about it because this was normal.

If you were an African American woman working at NASA in the early 1960s, you would not need any imagination. This would be your life.

Hidden Figures is a movie that will take you into the world of three women who walked in these shoes. Given the segregated times during which these brilliant women lived, I suspect that their experience was widely shared by people of color.

A lot of progress has been made since the 60s, but friends of color tell me that we still have a long ways to go. Assumptions and stereotypes about aptitude, motivation, or immigration status plague these brothers and sisters. Guarded suspicion is more readily extended than friendship.

We are much closer now than we were then to equity and equality, but let's not imagine there is no work left to be done. 2016 made that painfully obvious. Perhaps President Trump's most lasting legacy will be bringing the blatantly racist attitudes that persist in America into the light of public discourse. As troubling as this was, we might as well know the truth about where we are as a nation. Maybe this truth will compel us to seek justice.

The flurry of executive actions in Donald Trump's first week as President underscores the urgent need for private citizens, churches, and non-profit organizations to champion the cause of justice. If in the past we have relied on governmental agencies to ensure a just society, we know now that such an approach is inadequate. This has always been true. But now it's undeniable.

In Soong-Chan Rah's Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Rah urges his readers to cultivate "a personal connection to the corporate sin that has entered our culture." He says, "We must move from 'let's just get over it' to 'how do I personally continue to perpetuate systems of privilege?' Justice must move from the third person to the first person, from the abstract to the personal" (125–26). This is such timely advice.

Just this morning I heard about an African American PhD student in Chicago who was pulled over in 2015 and accosted harshly by police for suspected auto theft in spite of his respectful compliance with law enforcement officers. Friends, the man was beaten for driving his own car. Examples like these can be readily multiplied. As long as we live in a world where this can happen, we cannot rest.

The only great America will be the America where every human being — no matter their race or gender — is treated with dignity, compensated fairly, given credit for their work, and given a voice and a place at the table. If this is the America we want, we need to create it. Let's get to work!