Monday, May 25, 2015

long found friends

The year was 1995 (give or take), and I was sitting at my desk in Memorial Dorm, staring at my computer screen, puzzled. (That put me in the privileged 32% of Americans who owned computers in 1995). The email was addressed to me, using the email address I had acquired when I left home that fall for my first semester of college. (If you must know, I signed up for my own account primarily to keep in touch with my parents.)

From: ?

Frankly, I don't remember who it was from, but I knew I did not know her. She greeted me by name, sounding casual, and referring to something I was supposed to know about, but didn't.

I could have hit "delete," but I decided to reply. I think perhaps you have the wrong email address. My name is Carmen, but I don't think I know you . . .

Then she replied, embarrassed. Oops! I was trying to write my friend, Carmen. Her email address and yours are almost exactly the same. I just forgot to put a "1" behind "Carmenjoy."

And that was it.
Or so it could have been.

But this was not the last email I received for "the other Carmen Joy." At some point, I decided I should introduce myself, since we shared the same first and middle names. And so I did.


As it turned out, Carmen Joy and I had a lot in common besides our names and (almost) our email addresses. Not only was the other Carmen a Christian, but she lived in the Pacific Northwest and she was thinking about attending Multnomah! She was interested in missions, too. We kept in touch the way all good friends did in the 90's—we shared email forwards. Through those "forwards" we learned a lot about each other.

My life's journey took me to the Philippines, North Carolina, and Illinois before circling back to the Northwest. Carmen's brought her to New Hampshire, and then to join YWAM in (of all places) Denver, the city of my birth. For years I received her prayer letters and she received ours. But in spite of her trips home to the Northwest and our trips home to Denver, we never met in person. Until last week.

Carmen is back in the Northwest for a season, about an hour north of us. I suggested we meet for lunch on campus at Multnomah. And so we did.

Carmen Joy Imes and Carmen Joy Matson meet at last! Photo: C Imes

It was just as wonderful to meet Carmen in person as I suspected it would be! After almost 20 years of long-distance friendship and mutual inspiration, I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to talk face-to-face. Carmen's life has been a sweet aroma -- someone who loves Jesus and pours out her life for his kingdom. She's taken the gospel all around the world (literally), investing in one group of young YWAM students after another, sharing her heart, her home, and her faith. Her emails and blog posts always point me to Jesus. I'm eager to see what adventures God has in store for her next!

Life is richer with like-minded friends to share the journey. I'm so glad Carmen's friends accidentally emailed me almost 20 years ago. Who could have guessed the sweet fruit of that "mistake"!?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

an unlikely blessing

I am trying to recall if I have ever heard a woman give a benediction before.

This search through my mental files is complicated by the fact that I have very rarely heard a woman preach.

There was Leslie, draped in black robes, who took the pulpit one Sunday evening in my childhood church. This I did not understand. Her vestments were foreign, to be sure, but stranger still was her gender. How could a woman preach God's Word to a roomful of Christian Reformed men — men who spent a good deal of time arguing over whether a woman could even pass the offering plate? This contradiction tugged my small brain into knots. I probably squirmed in my pew and scanned the sanctuary for furrowed brows. I suppose she even blessed us, but I don't remember. My Opa, who never missed a service, must have been livid. I was simply puzzled.

Then there was a woman in 2005 whose name I can't recall, and whose message I could not understand. She spoke Dutch. Oma and I had traveled together to the land of her birth, the plot of ground where she grew to adulthood, and the church in which her faith was formed. It was startling to see a woman take to the stage in the very church that had produced my conservative grandmother. I sat there, intensely curious, I — a woman — who felt called to teach God's Word. What would Oma say? The service ended. I braced myself as Oma turned to me with the inevitable judgment. "Well," she pronounced with considerable disgust. "You could have done much better." I'm sure my eyebrows rose, unbidden. Was this my grandmother's blessing? I received it as such.

Rebecca, a riveting speaker at Good Shepherd in Charlotte.
Octavia, who captivated us in chapel at Gordon-Conwell.
Maggie, drawing us into the story by performing a monologue as Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Karen, offering a simple, back-to-the-basics homily at the IBR worship service one year.

If I push myself, perhaps I could fill the fingers on both hands. I who am 37 years old and have rarely missed a Sunday. I'll do the math for you. That's 1,924 sermons, not counting evening services or chapel messages in college or Sundays since my last birthday. So perhaps it's not surprising that I cannot conjure up a picture of a woman pronouncing the blessing at the close of the service.

At least 99.5 times out of a hundred, it's been a man.

And so when Pastor Dave invited me to give the benediction after my sermon on Mother's Day, I hesitated. Is that ok here? sermon is already outside the box for most conservative evangelicals. I didn't want to start a riot. He assured me that it would be fine, and so I agreed.

The priestly blessing in Numbers 6 is one of my favorite parts of the entire Bible. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, studying it, and writing about it. But this is a blessing only the priests are authorized to give. And they are all men. And these are not just nice words, they are efficacious words -- they do something. With these words the priests confer the Name of Yahweh on his people, verbally branding them as His own (see Numbers 6:27). They invite God to act on behalf of his covenant people in accordance with his promise.

I no longer believe that gender is a prerequisite for preaching. For similar reasons, I think "blessing" is not limited to clergy (or to members of just one Israelite tribe, for that matter). We are, after all, a "kingdom priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9) and in Christ there is "neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28). But frankly, I don't have much practice with benedictions, and hardly any precedent. It might have looked as awkward as it felt when I extended my hands over the congregation that Sunday.

But I meant every word.

May the LORD bless and protect you.
May the LORD smile on you and be gracious to you.
May the LORD show you his favor and grant you his peace.
Numbers 6:24–26

Monday, May 11, 2015

Best. Mother's Day. Ever.

This is my 15th Mother's Day as a mom, if you count the one following my first pregnancy, which ended in miscarriage. I've received a lot of sweet crafts and cards from my kids, and flowers, chocolate, etc. But this year tops them all.

First, 10 days ago my girls took me on a special early Mother's Day date. Eliana paid for lunch at The Old Spaghetti Factory and then the new Cinderella movie. It was a red letter day. We loved the food, enjoyed our time together immensely, and were enthralled by the movie. It was wonderful!

Then, when Mother's Day actually arrived, I had the honor of sharing the podium at church with my delightful 14-year-old daughter. It wasn't originally planned that way, but two events -- my preaching and her announcement -- just happened to find their way to the same day on the calendar. Mother's Day was the occasion for my invitation to preach, but because of Eliana, yesterday was also "Compassion Sunday."

Months ago we received a letter in the mail from Compassion International. Because the child we sponsor shares a birthday with Eliana, all the mail from Compassion is addressed to her. This one invited her to become an advocate for Compassion International by hosting an event at our church. It caught her attention. A few days later, we were on campus together at Multnomah and a volunteer representative from Compassion just happened to be there manning a table. I was busy meeting with a student, so Eliana wandered over to the table to find out more. Without any involvement from me, the correspondence between them continued over the ensuing weeks. Before long a box came in the mail for Eliana with photos of children waiting to be sponsored, a T-shirt for her to wear, and posters to hang at church. She met with the Compassion representative along with one of our pastors to plan the event.

Yesterday I sat proudly in the front row and watched Eliana address our congregation and introduce the Compassion volunteer. She looked completely at ease as she give a stirring plea for all of us to consider. Where did this beautiful, responsible, articulate, and motivated young lady come from? And what happened to our little girl? The best part was that Eliana planned the entire thing from start to finish. What a gift to see God at work in and through our children!

Wait . . . that's not all. By the time we packed up and headed home, 13* new children had sponsors! Way to go, Eliana! That's the best Mother's Day present I can imagine.


*Update: Some folks took a week to think and pray about sponsorship. By the end of the next week's services, the grand total rose to 20 sponsored kids as a result of Compassion Sunday!

In case you missed the press release in 2013, Compassion International submitted to an independent study by academics in the social sciences to find out if child sponsorship really works. The outcome far surpassed expectations. Compared with un-sponsored kids from the same families and communities, sponsored children grow up to earn more, learn more, be healthier and become leaders in their churches and communities. Sponsorship empowers young people to exit the cycle of poverty. Educating girls is the single most effective strategy for alleviating world poverty.

For related blog posts about inspiring kids to make a difference, click here and here.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

and the winner is . . .

Karen Jobes!

The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association has awarded a Medallion of Excellence in Bible Reference to Karen Jobes for her commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John, published by Zondervan.

Congratulations, Dr. Jobes!

Dr. Jobes is a dear friend and mentor, a member of my dissertation committee, and a great scholar. This award coincides with her retirement from Wheaton College, where she has been teaching as the Gerald F. Hawthorne Professor of New Testament Greek and Exegesis for 10 years. She has also taught at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California (10 years), and she's served for many years as a member of the Committee on Bible Translation for the NIV.
Next Spring the Pacific Northwest Region of the Evangelical Theological Society will have the honor of hosting Dr. Jobes as our plenary speaker. I'm looking forward to it already.

In addition to outlining the overall structure of John's letters and analyzing the Greek text, one of the strengths of Dr. Jobes' commentary is the section in each chapter devoted to Theology in Application. Here's an excerpt from the section following 1 John 4:7–16 on the question "Is God Loving?"
"People can experience many horrible things in life, leading both Christians and unbelievers to question God's love. How could a loving God let such horrible things happen as we see continually in the daily news? Without diminishing the reality of pain and suffering, John's answer would be that God has already loved each of us to the fullest extent by providing that crossover from death to life. For death is the worst this life can bring against us, but when this life has been swallowed up by eternal life, even the worst is not our defeat. Because God's fullest love has already been given in Christ more than two thousand years ago, it is not based on what we do or what others do to us. What greater gift of love could God give than freedom from death?"
 "When someone has experienced freedom from sin and freedom from death, they are able to love God and others as God intended. This is because love will not allow us to sin against others, for love is the opposite of sin. And when sinned against, we are enabled to forgive others because our Lord Jesus has atoned for that sin. We can reveal God's forgiveness and love to the offender through our forgiveness." (200, emphasis mine)

Monday, May 4, 2015

immigration reform . . . from the bottom up

"Esteemed Mr. President, 
 "My name is María Dolores, but I can't give you my last name or anybody's last name or where we live because I am not supposed to be in your wonderful country. I apologize that I am here without permission, but I think I can explain. My teacher at my new school, Mr. B., said for our first big writing project we could write anything we wanted. So I decided to write to you because I understand you are the one in charge of the United States."

So begins María's letter. Her honesty is disarming. Her letter pulls me in.

"Mr. B. came around, checking on our first paragraphs. When he saw my blank paper, he suggested I write about my family and our culture. But I am too afraid to call attention to our family being from Mexico because my classmates might turn us in. And it is not as simple as all going back to our homeland, because there is a division right down the center of our family. My parents and I are Mexicans and my two little sisters, Ofie and Luby, are Americans."

Are immigration issues too complicated to explain to children? Here's a child ready to explain it to grown-ups.

"I have seen you on the television, Mr. President, saying that you want democracy for this whole world. I sincerely hope you get your wish. But that will mean that if everyone in this world gets a vote, the majority will not be Americans. They will be people like me from other countries that are so very crowded and poor. We would be able to vote for what we want and need. So this letter is from a voter from that future when you would want to be treated as fairly as I am asking you to treat me."
María's request is simple, though fulfilling it is not.

"Please, Mr. President, let it be okay for my father and uncles to stay here helping this nice family and helping our own family back home buy the things they need. Every week, my father and his brothers each contribute forty dollars to send to our family in Mexico. This total is more than their father used to make in a whole month. He was a farmer, working from sunrise to sunset. But now he is an old man, Mr. President, as old as you are—although he looks much older. But the companies that buy corn and coffee did not pay enough for him to be able to even buy the stuff he needed for the next planting.
I know this must seem like an untruth because coffee costs so much in this country. The other day Tyler's mother took us to Burlington, and after she bought us ice creams, she stopped by a shop where all they sell is different kinds of coffees. A big cup was almost two dollars! Mr. President, please believe me that those two dollars are not reaching my family. In fact, as Tío Armando says, we have come north to collect what is owed to us for our hard work back where we came from."

The complexities of immigration reform unfold in this award-winning book by Julia Alvarez. Her story, Return to Sender, is the story of two children — a young farm boy in Vermont whose family is on the brink of losing everything, and a young girl from Mexico whose father and uncles move up North to work on that farm. These families need each other to survive.

Tyler and María are only in 5th grade, but together they face big challenges that require every ounce of courage and generosity they possess.

We need stories like these — stories that help us to see the world through someone else's eyes, stories that make us angry and yet fill our hearts with compassion we didn't know was there. The plot takes a number of unexpected turns, so to find out what happens, you'll have to read it yourself! You won't be sorry you did.