Thursday, July 23, 2020

Lament's Crucial Role in the Ministry of the Church

In my last post, I discussed three misconceptions about lament. Now I'd like to highlight four reasons why lament is essential to the ministry of the church. I'll be drawing on the excellent work of a Ugandan author, Emmanuel Katongole, catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame. His book, Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, is one of the best on this topic.

Did you know that laments outnumber any other type of psalm in the Bible? This may come as a surprise because most of us rarely hear lament psalms in church. The truth is, they make up 40% of the book of Psalms! (See Katongole, 104)

Not only that. By my count almost 25% of the psalms include "imprecatory" language, which is when the psalmist prays for God to bring harm on his enemies. For reasons I'll share below, I believe that these psalms are for Christians, too. Why can we not get along well without lament? Here are four reasons:

1. God's character is the basis of lament.
As Emmanuel Katongole reminds us, 
"At the heart of Israel's social, political, and religious life is the central conviction and experience of Yahweh as a saving God. Yahweh is not only the creator of the world and sovereign ruler of nations; Israel is God's chosen nation, which, through a covenant relationship, enjoys God's special favor and protection. For biblical Israel, therefore, safety and security are found not in military strength or wealth or technological advantage, but in the covenant relationship with Yahweh. Thus in the moment of crisis, because they believed that God can, should--and indeed, would--do something to save them, they complained, mourned, wept, chanted dirges, and cursed." (Born from Lament103-104)
This point is especially true of imprecatory psalms (the ugly, violent-sounding ones). If we cut out the violent parts of the psalms, we deny part of God’s essential character. YHWH’s self-description in Exodus 34:6-7 highlights divine mercy, but it also says of God: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (NRSV). The God of the Old Testament is YHWH, the covenant-making and redeeming God who rescues and saves, who demonstrates love and who takes sin seriously.

Would we prefer it otherwise? Would we prefer a world where rampant evil goes unchecked? Where corrupt despots get rich by oppressing others? Would we prefer for people to be allowed to destroy each other’s lives and reputations by spreading false rumors about them with impunity? Or are we grateful that God wields his power in loving ways by putting a stop to injustice? 

If we believe that God takes sin seriously, then we can accept the Bible's invitation to pray that he will act to bring the unrepentant to justice. 
2. Jesus modeled lament.
The book of Hebrews tells us that even Jesus lamented. "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission." (Hebrews 5:7)

Jesus' tearful prayers did not disqualify him. He was still "without sin." And here the author of Hebrews says that his lament was evidence of "reverent submission." Remember that on the cross Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" This, too, was a faithful way to pray in the midst of his darkest hour. If Jesus is our model, then lament is an indispensable part of faithful discipleship.
3. Without lament, our worship spaces are less safe.
We live in a world full of brokenness at every level ranging from international to intensely personal. The people walking through our doors (or tuning in) on a Sunday morning are the same people who are enduring hardship throughout their week. If our church services are mostly a pep rally or an exhortation to "trust more," and fail to reckon honestly with brokenness, we essentially send people elsewhere to find solutions to their problems. Introducing lament in corporate worship creates space to be real -- to bring our pain to God and cry out for healing.

When we don't acknowledge pain in church, we get less of God and less of each other. As my friend Amy Oden recently put it, "I find more of God when I am most angry with him." Expressing our true emotions in his presence opens us up to meet him in deeper ways. It also opens us to each other.
Why would we deny this opportunity to our congregations? I can think of one reason why: FEAR. We fear that if we create space for lament, people will be offended or discouraged. But in reality, the opposite happens. By restricting our prayers to praise, we deny people access to the full message of Scripture. We lose people who think that their lives and emotions are too complex for the church. If your congregation is likely to be offended by lament, then they have not embraced the whole counsel of Scripture. Teach them what the Bible says about it. Cultivate a space where people can pray how they feel and in so doing discover that they are not alone.
4. Lament is the foundation of social justice.
The consequences of neglecting lament go beyond our local congregation. Not only will individuals not feel that the church is a safe place to bring their whole selves, but the church will lose its ability to impact the wider culture by addressing societal brokenness. 
Katongole explains, "In the end, the loss of lament signals of loss of passion for social justice. A church that has lost its nerve to lament before God will likely lack the nerve to confront oppression and be prone to support the status quo. But that is also the reason why an attempt to recover the language of lament is about solidarity with those who suffer" (183).
The historic failure of white evangelicals to lament racial injustice unveils the root of our problem--we see racial discrimination as something happening to somebody else and being done by somebody else. By identifying with neither the perpetrators nor the victims, we maintain distance. As long as we are distant we cannot be part of the solution. Unless we see crimes against people of color as crimes against our fellow humans, we excuse ourselves from taking action.  
If we cannot corporately bring to God those problems that overwhelm us, where will we bring them? If we are not comfortable creating space for our brothers and sisters to pray and weep, how can we even begin to work with them to find solutions? If their grief does not become our own, on what basis will we build unity? Where else will we find the resources to address whatever threatens to undo us? The first step in imagining a different kind of future is to grieve together and to grieve deeply over what has been done and what is being done.
If we want to (1) know God, (2) follow Christ, (3) minister to broken people, and (4) make a difference in a broken world, then lament is essential. On its own, lament is not enough. It is not the whole answer. But without it, we lose our grip on the resilient hope of the gospel.

------

For more on lament, see my interview with Remnant Radio. 
For more on imprecatory prayer, see my blog post for the Political Theology Network.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Announcing . . . Companion Videos for 'Bearing God's Name'

I've been holding in a secret for almost six months (which might be a record for me). I've dropped a few hints, but wasn't allowed to say anything official until now. TODAY is the day I finally get to tell you about it!

Back in January, I was invited to fly to Chicago to film a video series based on my latest book. We filmed the entire series on the campus of Wheaton College (where I got my doctorate) in a single, grace-filled day. It was surreal to return to the very place where I discovered the truths that I share in Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters. It was so meaningful to be on site, rehearsing the content that has captured my attention for almost 10 years, so that I could share it with all of YOU. I'll show you the building where it all happened.

We recorded 10 short videos, one for each chapter of the book. If you're not a reader, these videos will convey the essential content of the book. If you've already read the book, these videos will reinforce the key ideas and help you share them with your small group.

You can check out the trailer here.

As a special bonus, I'll even take you with me to the Marion Wade Center on the campus of Wheaton College, where you'll see the desk on which J. R. R. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings and the wardrobe handmade for C. S. Lewis and his brother by their grandfather. (If you've already read the introduction to Bearing God's Name, you can probably guess how this relates to the book!)











Beginning today, you can access my video series and many others for personal enrichment or to explore with your small group. The project was envisioned and executed by an exciting new initiative hosted at Northern Seminary called Seminary Now.

Seminary Now is a new, on-demand streaming video platform that provides exclusive Bible, theology, and ministry courses from today’s leading teachers, ministry practitioners, and authors.

Like Netflix or Masterclass, subscribers get unlimited access to all courses—available on smart phone, tablet, and TV devices. You can earn also a certificate from Seminary Now by completing a learning track. 

Visit SeminaryNow.com for a free preview of the new course offerings. Here's the best part: when you join, you can not only access my videos, but also every other course on the website. Join today and access exclusive content from yours truly, Scot McKnight, John Walton, Brenda Salter McNeil, Ruth Haley Barton, and many more. At checkout, receive a limited-time 15% discount (pay only $17/month or $153/year) with coupon code TAKE15. Or check out the group pricing for your staff and lay leaders.

This is a fantastic opportunity for an individual, couple, or small group that wants to dig deeper into Scripture and learn from some of today's top thought-leaders.

Please forward this opportunity to others who you think would be interested in this new resource and like and share SeminaryNow.com on social media: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Three Misconceptions about Lament

Things are bad in this world of ours. An awful lot of hard stuff is going on. If there was ever a time to cry, this is it. But many Christians shy away from lament because they believe lament is somehow sub-Christian or perhaps they think it won't do any good. 

I've identified three reasons Christians avoid lament. All three are misconceptions. We'll tackle them one at a time:

(1) Lament shows a lack of faith.

If we really believe that God is good and powerful and that he will win in the end, then we would not need to lament, right? Singer-songwriter Michael Card disagrees. In his book A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, Card says this: 
"Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of belief in God. Despair is the ultimate manifestation of the total denial that He exists." (55)
In other words, if you did not believe in the existence of God, there would be no reason to lament. It would do no good. It's because we do believe in God, and trust him as the only one who is able to make things right that we present our most desperate requests to him.

In fact, the Bible offers many examples of faithful men and women who bring prayers of lament to God. Those prayers made it into our Bibles without condemnation. Some of them were included in the book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. Their presence in Scripture implies that we are invited to pray laments, too.

Michael Card explains it this way: 
"People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that prayers of complaint can still be prayers of faith. They represent the last refusal to let go of the God who may seem to be absent or worse -- uncaring. If this is true, then lament expresses one of the more intimate moments of faith -- not a denial of it. It is supreme honesty before a God whom my faith tells me I can trust. He encourages me to bring everything as an act of worship, my disappointment, frustration, and even my hate. Only lament uncovers this kind of new faith, a biblical faith that better understands God's heart as it is revealed through Jesus Christ." (31)
Lament is not faith-less, it's faith-full.
 
(2) Lament is the opposite of gratitude. 

How can we lament when the Bible urges us to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18)? Doesn't thankfulness preclude lament? One might think so, but again Scripture shows us that lament and gratitude go hand in hand.

In Psalm 44, the sons of Korah remember with gratitude the way that God has acted on Israel's behalf in the past (vv. 1-8). It's against the backdrop of their gratitude that they can plead with God to rescue them again (vv. 9-25). The character of God expressed in history leads them to trust God's future deliverance:
"Rise up and help us; rescue us because of your unfailing love." (Psalm 44:26)
We need not fear that lament will shut out our gratitude. For reasons I'll explain further below, lament and gratitude actually depend on one another.

(3) Lament will lead to despair. 

Some of us don't want to lament for fear of becoming bitter old souls. We don't want to get stuck. But on the contrary, it is our refusal to lament that leads to bitterness and despair. When we try to carry the grief on our own or manage our own solutions to life's deepest problems, the pressure is too much to bear.

Emmanuel Katongole explains, 
"Pain . . . has the ability to destroy language, to reduce the victim to silence. This silence is a form of powerlessness, a paralyzing form of despair. Therefore, the ability to voice grief, to find words to speak the unspeakable and to name pain, is a form of resistance to the paralyzing silence." (Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, 56)
The pathway to joy requires us to pass through the gateway of lament -- acknowledging that all is not well in the world and that we believe our God is able to do something about it. Until we look our pain and loss directly in the face, we will be unable to let it go. 

Have you seen the Pixar movie "Inside Out"? When it seems like everything has fallen apart, Joy learns an important lesson: the value of Sadness. You can watch a clip here. Joy tries valiantly to cheer up Bing Bong by distracting him, but Sadness holds the key: by acknowledging the pain of Bing Bong's loss and making space to grieve, he is able to move forward and soon they are (literally) back on track.

So let's imagine that I've convinced you that lament is not sub-Christian. You might be wondering what to do next. What if you are just not the "emotional" type? How can you tell if you need to lament? How do you start?

One way to tell that we have unexpressed grief is when we lose our capacity to feel deep joy. I like to think of the spectrum of emotions that we experience as a window. On the left side of the window are emotions that we tend to characterize as negative -- anger, grief, fear --  while on the right-hand side are the emotions we see as positive -- joy, gratitude, delight. 


Photo Credit: Rob Wingate on Unsplash 

Hanging inside our emotional window is a set of old-fashioned drapes. Perhaps you remember the kind. To close the drapes, you pull a looped cord on one side of the window and both drapes gradually close until they meet in the middle. Our emotional life is like this. We cannot block just one side of the window. Closing the left side means closing the right side as well. If we suppress our feelings of grief or anger, we make it impossible to feel gratitude and joy.

I am not a trained counselor, but it's been my experience that if I find it hard to laugh along with others or enjoy a happy gathering, there is likely some unexpressed grief lodged in my soul. We can never recover our joy by imagining away our sorrow. We have to face it. Name it. Pray it. And thereby release it to God. Then we can pull our drapes open and let light back in the room.

That's why I'm so thankful for the book of Psalms. It tutors us in prayer, giving us words when we have none, and modeling the full range of ways to connect with God. If we categorize the psalms into  lament, praise, and other psalms, we find that there are more laments than any other type of psalm. That should tell us something about the life of prayer, and it should give us courage to bring our sorrows to God. 

If you have been feeling numb, you can start by making a list of things that are bothering you. It may be news headlines or it may be personal. Then bring your list to God. Find a psalm that expresses your heart -- maybe Psalm 4 or Psalm 88. Pray those words and add your own. God wants to hear your heart.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Author Interview: Sandra Richter

In this post I'm taking you behind the pages of Stewards of Eden to meet the author, Sandra Richter. Sandy, thanks for taking the time to tell us about your work!

So great to get to interact on this important topic, Carmen. Thank you for the invitation!

When did you first know that you wanted to write this book?

Sandra L. Richter, Author of Stewards of Eden
Hmmm … that is a good question, and one I haven’t answered before. Although my love for God’s creation goes back to before I was even a Christian, the whole business of writing and speaking on this topic in Christian circles just sort of “happened.” As I narrate in the book, the first time I had the privilege of sharing a message of environmental stewardship from a pulpit was 2005 at Asbury Theological Seminary. The response was everything I could have hoped for. And to my surprise, I was asked to publish that message in the Asbury Journal. At the time of publication, I was serving on the Institute of Biblical Research planning committee, and we were casting about for a topic for the following year. I suggested that we do a plenary session on creation care. They said “yes,” if I would be one of the speakers. I was thrilled, but it also meant I had to seriously up my ante—now I needed a message appropriate for an academic conference. Man did I work hard on the research for that presentation. And in the fall of 2008 at the annual meeting … once again the response was everything I could have asked for. Rick Hess, editor of BBR was at the gathering and asked me to publish that presentation. Then there were a slew of speaking engagements—some more enthusiastically received than others. (There was a certain week-long “Holiness Conference” at a not-to-be-named Christian College where I think 17 people total showed up; then there was that walk-out at another not-to-be-named college; and, oh, the conference where I presented on humane animal husbandry in the heart of cattle country in Tulsa--that was a bit awkward!). In each of these my material evolved and developed. Usually the response was beautiful. (I’m thinking of Darryl Williamson’s "Arise City Conference" in Tampa, FL, and the older sister who stood to her feet at the end of my talk, called everybody out, and ran what could be called an altar call for me!) But I think the first time I knew I wanted to publish this book was during my tenure at Wheaton College. I realized (as I narrate in the book), that the Christian community needed a short, accessible, biblical treatment of this topic. A book that didn’t get lost on side issues. A book students could read (quickly), hand off to their parents, and they to the grandparents. I wanted to offer the Church their own book on this topic: “What Scripture says about the environment and why it matters.”  

Did you grow up in a home that valued conservation? If so, how did your parents practice conservation? If not, when did you become passionate about creation care?

No, I can’t say that I did. Like yours, my family was frugal. And like yours we camped a lot (there were a lot of us and we were military—cheap vacations!). I do think the camping and some of the adventurous places we lived as an oft-relocated Navy family awakened my deep empathy for the trials of creation. But I wasn’t raised with any sort of tutelage in environmentalism. Honestly, I think my passion for creation is part of my journey to faith. I believe that it was the image of God in me (prevenient grace for the Wesleyans out there!), and the Spirit of God calling me, that caused the majestic and fragile beauty of creation to resonate so deeply with me. As I say in the book: “When I stand at the ocean’s edge and feel the spray of its raging force on my face, when the wind silences me, when I am privileged to hold a wild creature in my hands” … my response is worship. This has always been true of me—even before I knew the Creator’s name.

What are the biggest hang-ups for evangelicals when it comes to creation care? Do you have a theory about why this is?

Having lectured and written on this topic for more than a decade at this point, I am pretty convinced that the “hang-ups” can be distilled to three issues. (1) The fact that in American politics environmentalism has been pigeon-holed into a “liberal” political agenda and has become guilty by association. Essentially, the accusation is that if you care about stewarding the planet you must also be a “liberal.” (2) The fact that we as Americans don’t typically see the impact of environmental degradation. We export most of our mess and never see the widow and the orphan picking through the trash piles we create. (3) The very unfortunate theological agenda that teaches that this earth will be annihilated at the end of the age. I deal with this misunderstanding of the New Covenant in chapter seven of the book.

You're a busy professor married to a professor with two growing daughters. What inspired you to raise chickens in your backyard? Surely not boredom?

Hah! The infamous chickens! Well Greta, Maggs, and Lucy will be thrilled to know they made the blog! Buttercup, may she rest in peace, will be grieved to have missed out. And we’ll be sure to send a note over to their sisters Sadie and Penelope who are keeping our friends Jack and Maggie in eggs these days! So, yes, I am “wicked busy,” but you make time for what you love don’t you? The chickens were a project for my youngest daughter and me. We both really wanted to do it, and Santa Barbara is a perfect place to raise chickens. California is a very libertarian state, so you can have chickens (not roosters) in pretty much any suburb. Better, you don’t have to heat your chicken coop to keep any of your hen’s feet from freezing off! More seriously, it is important to me that I practice what I preach. So in our house we recycle everything, we compost, we hang out our wash, we read labels, we eat very little meat, we have a vegetable garden, I drive a used Prius, we have rain barrels, and we’ve dropped all sorts of $$$ to landscape with native plants (which in SoCal means less water). Like any homeowner, I’m still learning (like what about solar panels?), but as I believe that environmental stewardship is a part of my responsibility as a Christian … I’m doing my best.  

Climate change is one of the most controversial aspects of the current debate about environmental concerns. Why did you choose not to talk about it in your book?

Great question. Several reasons. The first and most obvious is that the Bible has nothing to say about climate change. So any biblical theology of climate change is going to have to be an extrapolation—something I did not want to be doing in a book I promised was “just the Bible for those justly concerned.” Second and closely related, the steps any believer should be taking to curtail their own over-use of this planet and its resources will help to reverse climate change. So in many ways, climate change is a moot point. If we’d been doing our job as good stewards, we wouldn’t be having this problem. So what changes are needed? As Gus Speth, Chairman of the council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter has stated:

"I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy."

I say it this way in the book: “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains. He has given it to us to use in our need, but not to abuse in our greed.” When we get serious about our careless consumption of fossil fuel; when we start thinking about the supply chain for that fuel, our manufactured goods, our food; when we take stock of reckless land development … climate change will begin to unchange. So, yes, climate change is a huge issue that our carelessness has brought to the tipping point, but it is one that regular old responsible stewardship would have/still can resolve.

One of our first purchases when we moved to our current house was a 3-part trash bin for the kitchen, so that we could sort trash from plastic and paper recyclables. Our town has no recycling pick-up program, but we do have a local recycle center where we can bring our own recyclables. We've been pretty diligent about sorting trash making trips there. However, we heard a year or two ago that all the plastic recycling ends up in a landfill anyway because China will no longer accept plastics for recycling, and North America lacks the facilities to handle the volume of plastic waste. Have you explored this issue? Why should we keep sorting recyclables if it all ends up in the landfill anyway?

Yes, in 2018, China said, “We don’t want your trash anymore.” This, of course, sent major reverberations through many US businesses. If China wasn’t going to take our trash anymore, and we are now packaging everything from blueberries to underwear to new tools for our work bench in plastic, what are we going to do? The first question we should ask, of course, is why were we sending our trash overseas in the first place? Where is our sense of national responsibility? And what about the widow and the orphan in China?

The next question is, “Uh oh, if China has been recycling our plastic, do we have the infrastructure in the US to take care of our recycling ourselves?” And the answer right now is, no.  At this point we have more than 20 types of plastic packaging—and every time I go to the grocery store I see that COSTCO and Kroger have figured out a new way to use plastic for stuff that used to come loose or in cardboard. As a result, “virgin plastic” accounts for most of the plastic you and I see, which is produced by petro-chemical companies. These guys make billions producing their plastic (and will make billions more as current plans are to double the industry in the next five years). As the name implies, petro-chemical companies are using fossil fuels to make their stuff. And right now, virgin plastic costs less than 10% of the cost of recycled plastic. So what is a capitalist economy to do? The first thing we need to do is to be disturbed. Statistics such as those below should be a huge wake-up call:

  • More than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from plastic pollution every year; 100% of baby sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs. 
  • Every day around 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into our oceans.
  •  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (made up primarily of plastic) is bigger than Texas. 
Then we need to do something. What to do? Vote with your pocket book. Buy plastic packaging as little as possible. Choose the “avoid plastic packaging and extra packaging” option with Amazon. When you have to buy plastic, look for “recycled” on the label. Tell your grocery store manager you don’t want your food in “clam shell” packaging. Tell COSTCO that apples don’t occur naturally in plastic bubbles. Basically, let us make it as socially inappropriate to buy and sell in plastic as it is to smoke cigarettes in the work place!

Your book goes beyond recycling to talk about mining and food production. Those case studies were incredibly eye-opening for me, especially in light of the biblical teaching on agriculture and animal husbandry that you so powerfully explain. What can one person do to make a difference in a culture marked by greed and consumerism?

Thanks for this question, Carmen. The last section of Stewards of Eden is entitled “Resources for the Responsive Christian.” This appendix gives very practical, hands-on, “I can do this,” suggestions for the average human. Things like getting informed (subscribe to an environmental magazine in order to educate yourself); voting your informed conscience (Sierra Club offers a voting guide every year); voting with your purchase power are a great way to start. Links and addresses are all in there. As above, one powerful thing all Americans and Canadians can do is vote with their purchase power. We are capitalists, oh, yes we are. And if it doesn’t sell, the industry makes changes! So when you go to the grocery store, the hardware store, the car dealership, be willing to spend a bit more to invest in the industries you want to thrive. As with all things in our fallen world, we are not actually going to be able to fix this. The Rider on the White Horse is going to have to do that. Just as I will never succeed in emptying all the brothels in Thailand, finding a home for every abused child abandoned to the foster care system, or feed every orphan in Sub Sahara Africa—I am not going to fix this either. But as a Christian, it is my sworn duty to stand in the gap. It is our calling as salt and light to demonstrate to our bruised and broken world what a citizen of heaven looks like, “to live our lives as Adam and Eve should have, as Jesus Christ has.” Environmental degradation is a global and a local issue, our neighbors are impacted by this, our neighbors care about this. Where is our witness in the mix?  In sum, what I attempt to demonstrate in the book is that God cares about this, and we must too.
It's hard to imagine a more compelling book on this topic for Christians who care about what the Bible teaches about creation. Thanks for your excellent work to help us think well about environmental stewardship! 


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Book Review: Sandra Richter's 'Stewards of Eden'

I grew up in a white, American, conservative Evangelical context, where "environmentalist" was a derogatory term. To us, environmental concerns were a liberal agenda. We certainly didn't want to be guilty of getting all wrapped up in saving the planet when the thing that mattered was people and their eternal destiny. 

At the same time, being of Dutch descent, it came naturally to avoid waste. We washed and reused ziplock bags, kept scraps of paper to use for craft projects, wore hand-me-down clothes, shopped at thrift stores, hung our laundry out to dry (at least for a while), and planted a garden. We were delighted to find free stuff on the side of the road on trash day or go dumpster diving behind the local craft store to rescue stuff from the landfill. Once, when my brother and I were young, we picked up cans on the side of the highway for miles with my parents to help pay for a new Red Flyer wagon. It's probably fair to say that we did all this to save money, not to save the planet. But we also enjoyed nature as a family, camping as often as we could. 

These days I'm puzzled over the apparent disconnect between our thrifty way of life and the aversion we had to environmental concerns. The more I study Scripture, the more I see how the mandate to care for creation is actually a central part of what it means to be human! Genesis 1:26-28 outlines God's vision for human vocation, and it's directly tied to our involvement with the animals and our shared habitat: 
Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." 

One book that is helping me rethink my relationship with this planet is Sandy Richter's brief introduction to creation care entitled Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It MattersSandy is a master at making rigorous biblical exegesis accessible to laypeople. 

She knows her stuff. Her Harvard dissertation was published by de Gruyter under the title The Deuteronomistic History and the Name Theology: lešakkēn šemô šām in the Bible and the AncientNear East, which sounds intimidating before you even open the cover,
but her Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament is one of the most down to earth and accessible books you'll find on the Old Testament. I've come to expect illuminating insights expressed in powerful prose. But Sandy is more than a respected author to me. She was a member of my dissertation committee and has slaved over my writing to help me improve. Were it not for her approval, I would not be Dr. Imes. We attended the same church in Wheaton for 2 years and I am honored to call her my friend. Stewards of Eden is just like Sandy -- short, but powerful, insightful and challenging.

One of the really compelling parts of Sandy's book is the chapter on Widows and Orphans. In it, she shows how our failure to practice sustainable stewardship disproportionately affects those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. In other words, the way we treat the planet affects people, especially the poorBecause most of our food and consumer products are produced and disposed of far from us, we are shielded from the sometimes devastating effects of their production and disposal. We "export" our environmental waste by manufacturing products in countries (or counties!) with looser restrictions. The implications of these business decisions will be felt for decades to come as the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer -- their lands crippled by toxic waste. In my mind this may be one of the most persuasive sections for Evangelicals who value people over the natural world. 

The CoronaVirus pandemic is providing us with a current case in point. Sandy and I can easily work from home as professors, and while our institutions are dealing with new financial challenges, we still have homes, food, and access to health care. "Shelter in place" is more likely to feel like a "staycation" for us than a death sentence. Meanwhile, blue collar workers are in large part unable to work from home and may have very little 'cushion' with which to weather the loss of income. Lower income neighborhoods have limited access to testing and less reliable health care coverage. The Navajo Nation is a sobering example. Limited access to water (right here in North America!) and limited access to healthcare and a lower overall level of community health are contributing factors to their higher-than-average COVID19 infection and death rates. The crisis of this pandemic exposes the inequities of our society and chastens our complacency.

Sandra L. Richter, Author of Stewards of Eden
One thing I deeply appreciate about Sandy's book is that she consistently demonstrates that Sinai still matters. Sandy takes us through God's instructions for ancient Israel to show how creation care -- including trees, fields, and animals -- is an integral part of God's expectations for the covenant community. These instructions help us see what matters to God and to human flourishing. Under Sandy's tutelage, your eyes will be opened to what these laws would have meant for the ancient landowner, an invitation to a radically generous way of life dependent on God's provision. While she does not suggest that we try to implement Old Testament law wholesale, she shows how the laws should continue to inform our ethics and practice. We, too, are invited to practice radical generosity. Sandy leaves readers with a whole list of practical ways to begin right now to reverse these trends and make a positive difference.

In my next post, I interview Sandy about Stewards of Eden -- what motivated her to write it and how we can begin to respond. You won't want to miss it!

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Reading 'Reading While Black' While White

Esau McCaulley is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, an ordained Anglican priest, and a fellow board member of the Institute for Biblical Research. I'm guessing that he wrote Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP, 2020) with Black readers in mind. But this white girl found it both helpful and inspiring.

May I make a public confession? I grew up in a very monocultural environment. We were not just all white, we were almost all of Dutch descent. My family is 100% Dutch on both sides, my church was about 95% Dutch, my school K-12 was probably at least 70% Dutch and about 95% white, and my neighbors were nearly all of Northern European descent. 

I didn't like being in a white bubble. I was intrigued by other cultures. I felt called to be a missionary, to take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. I learned Spanish, read missionary biographies, collected ethnic clothing, and dreamed of life in another culture. But even so, I mainly thought about what I had to offer, not what I had to learn.

I used to think that making space at the table for people of color was a matter of equality or justice, and that's part of it. People of color are made in the image of God and they should get a chance to speak. In theory, I imagined that reading the Bible with people from other cultural backgrounds would also be enriching. But I had no idea what I was missing! 

Over the past 5 years or so I've been reading more widely and adding books to my own library and to my college's as fast as I can. I'm convinced now that when we only listen to people who look like we do, we're missing out on a ton of insight. I'm discovering a rich world of biblical reflection by African, African-American, Latinx, Asian, Asian-American, First Nations, and Islander believers.

Reading While Black fills an important gap in my library as well as in my understanding. Ironically, much of what is published by minority authors reflects the politics of the ivory tower -- critical of Scripture -- at times representing a departure from the faith tradition. (There are probably a variety of reasons for this, but I suspect that university presses are simply well ahead of faith-based publishers in seeking out authors of color.) As a result, it's much harder to find published works that represent the views of the majority of churches in the global south, churches which are by-and-large conservative.

Esau McCaulley, author of 
Reading While Black
(photo: Wheaton College)
In Reading While Black, Esau seeks to recover the resources of the Black church tradition that arises from the pulpit and the pew rather than from the ivory tower. He models a faith-filled reading of the biblical text that remains engaged with politics and justice but does not neglect the call to holy living.

Each of his chapters tackles an issue about which the Scriptures have something profound to say -- a theology of policing, the political witness of the church, the pursuit of justice, black identity, black anger, and slavery. He issues a prophetic call back to the Scriptures and to a life of faithfulness. His is not a call to "make the best of" systemic injustice, nor does he seek a violent overthrow. Esau engages tough questions with verve, urging active but peaceful resistance to injustice.

I'm grateful for his voice. I've known Esau for a while now, and I've come to trust his commitment to the authority of Scripture. I also trust him to say hard things that need to be said, but to do it with pastoral sensitivity and kindness. I'm honored to call him my friend.

Many are wondering what to do when the protests have ended. How can we keep listening? My official endorsement of the book reads:
How can the church today effectively address the racial tensions that plague our nation? Esau has convinced me that the Black Church tradition holds the key -- maintaining fidelity to the Scriptures while fully engaging in the struggle for justice. This book is an excellent starting point for those who want to listen and learn a new way forward. Esau's prophetic voice is rooted in Scripture and full of hope. Highly recommended!
Why not start here? Reading While Black was supposed to release later this fall, but due to popular demand, IVP is stepping up the release to September 1, 2020. You can pre-order a copy here. You can listen to Esau talk about the book here. You can also spread the word and leave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads as soon as it releases.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Danger of Success

It's been an incredible six months for me as a writer.
  • Bearing God's Name is on its 5th printing in under 6 months. (And while the average print size is only 1000 copies, the need for multiple printings clearly indicates that it has repeatedly exceeded the publisher's expectations.) 
  • It's received rave reviews and generated a spate of podcast interviews. 
  • This week InterVarsity Press offered me a second book contract. 
  • I've been invited to write for Cambridge University Press as well as Bloomsbury.
  • Two other essays and two book projects are in various stages of preparation for printing. 
Most importantly, I hear from grateful readers almost every day. It's been fun and really gratifying to see people respond so positively to my work. I'll be honest -- sales stats and accolades can be intoxicating! How do I stay grounded?

A couple of months ago I listened to an episode of the Disrupters podcast in which Esau McCaulley interviewed his doctoral advisor, N. T. Wright. One moment in their conversation grabbed my attention. Wright was speaking of a semester he spent in Jerusalem on Sabbatical in which he was working on his massive book Jesus and the Victory of God. He explains, "I was trying to write the introduction to the Jesus book . . . and I remember one day as I was saying my prayers, kneeling down at the prayer desk in my little room in Jerusalem and prayed 'Oh, dear Lord, am I really supposed to be doing one volume of introduction, and then a book about Jesus, and another volume about Paul?'" Although he does not regularly hear the audible voice of God, Wright received an unmistakable reply: "Well, yes, except it won't just be three."

I love this. Academics so rarely talk about the spiritual side of their work. I treasure this window into Tom Wright's prayer life as it relates to his writing. I have always seen writing as an act of worship, alongside teaching and mentoring and leading. On the front end, prayer fuels my brainstorming, proposing, and beginning. As I write, I pray all the more -- for clarity, insight, and clear communication. As the work is published, I pray that others will find benefit in it. When God answers these prayers and I begin to see fruit from it -- that is, when the work meets success -- it is essential that I continue to see it as an act of worship.

This weekend I re-read a classic: C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. It's helping me recalibrate my heart in the midst of these heady days. Lewis' warning comes by way of an imaginative story in which people from hell visit heaven and decide whether or not they want to stay. Many of the characters in his story are so committed to their illusions of a meaningful life that they literally choose to go back to hell rather than give them up to live in heaven.

Some refuse heaven because it would mean forgiving people who hurt them. Others are so preoccupied with themselves that they cannot imagine a world that does not revolve around them. One man is utterly horrified to learn that in the few years since his death his artistic genius has been wholly forgotten. He sets out to return to hell straightaway so that he can drum up more interest in his work.

How could someone who produced such great works of art or music or literature on earth be so sadly uninterested in heaven? I found the mentor's words a sober warning:
Ink and catgut and paint . . . are dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about him. For it doesn't stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower--become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations. - C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 81
Contrasting this, in Lewis' vision of heaven, people are utterly uninterested in themselves and instead deeply interested in others. They are so captivated by knowing Christ that they have let go of every accolade and ambition of their own.

The mentor tells of a fountain higher in the hills which "when you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else's: without pride and without modesty" (82). No one is distinguished. "The glory flows into everyone."

This thought gripped me. I was compelled to write Bearing God's Name because I believed with all my heart that the church at large needed to rediscover the value of the Old Testament and meet the God of Grace in its pages. But the success of this book presents the very real danger that I'd begin to enjoy the writing more than the reality to which it points, becoming fixated on sales and reviews and accolades to the extent that I lose sight of the message. If my "ownership" of this book will be lost in the the new creation, can I begin even now to let go of it? Can I view it without pride or modesty, but just as if it belongs to someone else? I must at least try.

The alternative is terrifying.