Friday, March 22, 2013

wondering what's behind the curtain

Something is stirring backstage.
Winter has lost its grip, but spring is not quite here.
Birds flutter and chirp in the trees, repairing old nests, building new ones.
            But as of yet there are no leaves to hide them.
Squirrels scurry about, sniffing, digging for half-remembered acorns.
My soul is restless, too. Expectant. Wondering. Searching, even.
What's next?
Something is stirring, but it's too soon to tell what.

In just a handful of weeks we've walked with friends through cancer, emergency surgeries, loss of a baby, loss of jobs, loss of funding, insomnia, painful waiting, depression, chronic pain, conflict and misunderstanding. It's been heartbreaking. In those same weeks we've seen students accepted, funding promised, proposals completed, chapters written, dissertations finished, jobs offered, and babies born. Life refuses to stand still. Surprises wait around every corner.

Some dear college friends, Heath and Emie, put it so beautifully in a recent email (which they agreed to let me share with you):

In August, Jesus made it abundantly clear that we were to step back from something that was very dear to our hearts. At the time, we didn't understand what God was doing but we followed him into an unknown space and waited.  I told people during the time from August to December that it was like we were sitting in auditorium with the curtain drawn across the stage.  We could sense tons of preparation and movement behind the curtain but we had no idea what would be playing when the curtain was pulled, much less what the stage might look like.  

What's behind the curtain? What is God doing that I cannot see?
For Heath and Emie, the curtain has opened, and the scene awaiting them has brought both joy and tears. God is calling them onstage—calling them back to Africa. Emie admits,
The last two months have been hard for me.  I've cried buckets of tears.  I told Heath it's not that I'm not ready to go. . . I just know what I'm going to.  There's no blind anticipation and adrenaline rush this time.  I know the poverty that will be right outside my gate every morning.  I can still see the faces of the street kids going through my trash as soon as I turn my back to walk into my house.  I remember the sadness in the eyes of the people who live with virtually nothing, sick and dying.  And it undoes me.  At least it did 6 years ago.
Back to poverty. Back to sickness, sadness, and death.
Waiting can be hard, but sometimes knowing is even harder.

Having the courage of a Garry Friesen or a Heath and Emie Locke does not erase the suffering of surrender. We surrender because we trust that the One who is directing this drama knows best. And we'd rather be part of the story He's writing, no matter how difficult the role, than miss what he is doing.

Friday, March 15, 2013

white smoke rising

Newly elected Pope Francis I
I watched with interest as the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church convened, went under lock and key, and selected the next Pope. When the white smoke rose, 1.2 billion Catholics strained to understand the Latin pronouncement revealing his identity. In moments they were chanting his name: "Francisco!" Pope Francis has an enormous responsibility. And while I am not Catholic, I recognize the significant role he will play in years to come as the most visible Christian leader on the planet. With the scandals that have rocked the Catholic church in recent years, Pope Francis needs our prayers for wisdom, humility, and a steady reliance on God for his strength. If all the media attention to Catholicism has raised questions for you about what Catholics believe, I invite you to check out a series of blog posts I wrote last summer during a course I took at Notre Dame, a Catholic University in Indiana. I wrote as an evangelical, but seeking to understand rather than attack Catholicism. We may not have a new Pope, but the fact that others do will affect us indirectly for years to come. Only time will tell how.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

volunteering for the pink slip

Every now and then, someone does something extraordinary.
This is one of those moments.

Times are hard in higher education. Getting a job requires an enormous amount of stamina. Keeping one requires even more. I have fully qualified friends who applied for 50 academic jobs and only landed 2 interviews. Others applied for teaching jobs 4 years in a row. Wheaton has an amazing record -- 100% of our PhD graduates have vocational placements (i.e. they are not working at Wal-mart). But finding these jobs has not always been easy.

Traditional enrollment is down at institutions all across the country. Donors are pulling back as their investments are shrinking. Students are reluctant to take out loans to finance their education, with no guarantee of a job on the other side. These factors make it hard to find a job in academia. An open faculty position routinely draws as many as 200 applications. But while everyone else is lining up for jobs, one is walking away.

Meet Dr. G.

Garry Friesen has been teaching Bible at Multnomah University for 37 years. He is best known for his book Decision Making and the Will of God, a book that has helped tens of thousands of believers around the world as they have wrestled with very practical questions like Where should I go to school? Who should I marry? How do I find out God's will for my life? Dr. G is still in his prime. Students clamor to take his Pentateuch class. They flock to sit at his table at lunch. A handful even live with him in his C.S. Lewis-themed house up the street from campus (affectionately known as Aslan's How). But this fall, you won't find him in the classroom or in the cafeteria. He resigned.

Like just about every other school administration, Multnomah's decision-makers have been staring hard at the bottom line, wondering how to change red to black. This semester they faced the hardest decision yet—they had no choice but to let go of 4 Bible/Theology professors. And that's when Dr. G volunteered for the pink slip.

If I know Dr. Friesen, I can tell you that he did not wait for an audible voice from God telling him to make this move. He simply saw what needed to be done and did it. In his own words,
Dr. Garry Friesen
"A year ago Multnomah wisely alerted our Bible/Theology faculty that we might have to make cuts in the future. I informed them that I would be willing to retire early from Multnomah to avoid a younger teacher being cut. Sadly, that day has come. This week Multnomah announced to our school family that four faculty positions are being to properly size our faculty to our current student body. For years I have dreamed of teaching full time in Africa after my time at Multnomah had ended. I finalized my decision to resign and have applied to teach full time at Africa College of Theology in Kigali, Rwanda." 
Thanks, Dr. G. You are an inspiration to us all!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

need doctrinal counseling? join the club.

Five years ago, D. A. Carson critiqued H. Richard Niebuhr's classic typology of ways to relate Christ and culture. (For a PhD seminar this semester I've read Niebuhr along with primary sources that more or less illustrate his various categories.) Carson claims Niebuhr's categories are not mutually exclusive, and that no one model can stand on its own.
"[E]ven the most intellectually robust theory of how things work, or ought to work, falters in practice within a generation or two, because human beings falter: we overlook something, or we distort the balance of things, or, because this is a fallen and broken world, our well-intentioned actions invite a nasty reaction on the part of unbelievers, and the tension between Christ and culture spins off in some new direction." (D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 224–25, emphasis mine)

This is not just true of the "Christ and culture" question, but also of Christian theology in general. I've had a wonderfully diverse Christian experience, partly because Danny and I have moved 11 times in our 14 years of marriage. This has forced us to rethink "church" again, and again, and again. At times, it's been confusing.

I was baptized as an infant in the Christian Reformed Church, where our family stayed until I made public profession of faith at age 11. Not long afterwards, we left the CRC to join a vibrant charismatic community, where we experienced spiritual growth, healing, and a new appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit and the love of Christian community. When that church disbanded, we helped start a non-denominational church. Unfortunately, that also ended badly, so we sought refuge in a Foursquare church. Four years later I headed off to a progressive dispensationalist Bible College, where my church attendance depended on available transportation: Baptist, non-denominational elder-led, and finally Mennonite, after I met and married Danny. We served first in the elder-led church, and then in the Mennonite church until we moved to the Philippines as missionaries, where we attended a non-denominational Tagalog-speaking and a charismatic English-speaking church. When we moved to Charlotte, NC, we attended an Evangelical Free church until a move across town brought us to Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, where we became members. We're currently attending a Baptist church during our sojourn in Wheaton, but we're still receiving financial support from our Mennonite sending church in Oregon, and our UMC church in Charlotte. Are you dizzy yet?

I am. Last week I scheduled an appointment for "doctrinal counseling" with one of my professors to try to find out how to keep the best parts of each of these church traditions without being theologically schizophrenic. I have a deep appreciation for certain aspects of each of the churches I have called home. Each has strengths and weaknesses, making it difficult to choose just one. My conversation with Dr. Treier was helpful in sorting through various doctrinal positions to see which can be fruitfully combined.

Reading Carson's book has also helped. His closing words urge us to listen to the whole witness of Scripture in our development of doctrine. He says,
"To pursue with a passion the robust and nourishing wholeness of biblical theology as the controlling matrix for our reflection on the relations between Christ and culture will, ironically, help us to be far more flexible than the inflexible grids that are often made to stand in the Bible's place. Scripture will mandate that we think holistically and subtly, wisely and penetratingly, under the Lordship of Christ — utterly dissatisfied with the anesthetic of culture. The complexity will mandate our service, without insisting that things turn out a certain way: we learn to trust and obey and leave the results to God, for we learn from both Scripture and history that sometimes faithfulness leads to awakening and reformation, sometimes to persecution and violence, and sometimes to both. Because creation gave us embodied existence, and because our ultimate hope is resurrection life in the new heaven and the new earth, we will understand that being reconciled to God and bowing to the Lordship of King Jesus cannot possibly be reduced to privatized religion or a form of ostensible spirituality abstracted from full-orbed bodily existence now." (227–28, emphasis mine)
Flexibility is a hallmark of the emerging generation, and it, too, can be a weakness if by flexible we mean spineless or infinitely "open." Truth matters, and so does our expression of that truth. But I'm glad that there is more than one way to "do church," and that we can all learn from one another. Our response to the truth of Scripture is not scripted in advance or limited by our cultural context. That's beautiful.

Monday, March 4, 2013

new books on the block ... by Daniel Block

Dr. Daniel Block must be one of the most productive writers on the planet. Since I arrived at Wheaton to study under him just 18 months ago he has published 4 books (including this, thisthis and this), with 6 others in various stages of preparation, and several more on the horizon. You can watch for the following additions to his bibliography in the next year (the first three are with the publisher, the last two are in the final stages of submission, and the commentary on Ruth is in the research and writing phase):
  • a book on biblical worship (Baker)
  • a reprint of his Gods of the Nations, including an appendix with his original translation of a text on Marduk (Wipf & Stock)
  • a commentary on Obadiah based on discourse-analysis in the new series for which he serves as general editor, Hearing the Message of Scripture (Zondervan)
  • a commentary on Ruth for the same series (Zondervan)
  • a 2-volume collection of his essays on Ezekiel, some of which have never before been published (Wipf & Stock)

Speaking of bibliography . . . if you’re looking for me, I’ll be in my study carrel fine-tuning footnotes and bibliographies.
Stay tuned for all this and more!