Thursday, December 31, 2015

15 best blog posts of 2015

Are you counting down 'til midnight? Wondering how to stay awake for the rest of the evening?
Join me in re-living this year's highlights by re-reading some of my best blog posts from 2015.
Some of these had the most hits, while others are simply my favorites. It's been a good year.
Thanks for giving me over 13,000 reasons to write in 2015!

on the academic journey (and life in general)
Feb 20 - now is the time for no
July 18 - on being finite
July 9 - why bother writing a dissertation?

on finding beauty in the ordinary
Aug 23 - unforgettable day
Dec 8 - a beautiful thing

on life and ministry
May 19 - an unlikely blessing
Sept 15 - life in the middle of nowhere
Nov 16 - when you don't (think) you have what it takes

on parenting
May 11 - Best. Mother's Day. Ever.
Aug 7 - how I've failed my kids
Dec 11 - another beautiful thing

on the Bible
July 25 - bored by Leviticus or lost in Numbers? don't miss this
Oct–Nov - does the new NIV distort the Scriptures? (a 7-part series)

in loving memory
Mar 13 - a giant has fallen (tribute to Dr. Harry Hoffner)
Sept 7 - four things I inherited from Oma

Monday, December 28, 2015

what I'm reading

To a publisher it makes no difference whether I am a tenured professor or a newbie adjunct. If I have students, they want to get their books in my hands. That's good news for a bibliophile.

Zondervan leads the way in this "culture of generosity," but InterVarsity and Kregel are not far behind. I walked away from ETS/IBR/SBL this year with $534 worth of FREE books. I spent a grand total of $9.50, buying only the book on top of this stack. Some of these were free gifts to IBR members (2 from the lecture and 3 from the women's breakfast). Two are books I agreed to review for Academic Journals. Eight were given to me as potential textbooks for the Prophets class I'll be teaching at Multnomah in June. But get this: any professor who ordered FREE copies of books from Zondervan to consider using as textbooks was given their choice of another FREE book from the CounterPoints series. Really? A free book for requesting free books? Now you see what I mean about a culture of generosity.

You might insist that this is merely good marketing. I'm sure you're right (especially since I passed right on by publishers who were going to charge me half price for any books I didn't require students to buy). But for someone who is just starting out in this career, it's also a big boost. So thank you, publishers!

Monday, December 21, 2015

a Bible read-through like you've never SEEN before

I've already introduced you to the Bible Project videos -- the best set of videos on Bible books and Bible themes I've seen to date.

Now for the big announcement... [can I get a drum roll?]

Starting in January, you can join tons of other people in reading through the entire Bible with the help of these videos. Tim and Jon have committed to releasing all 36 remaining book and theme videos in time for you to watch them on your Bible read-through journey! Most people stall out on their Bible read-through by the time they get to Leviticus. But this time will be different. Now you have expert guides to walk you through this obscure book. The Bible Project video on Leviticus is so good, my seven year old says it's his "favorite," and he's watched it multiple times.

Tim and Jon have arranged the entire Bible into readings that will take 15–20 minutes per day, punctuated by videos introducing books and themes as you come to them. You'll end up with a rich course in biblical theology as you immerse yourself in the text.

It's all free. And you can get started right here.

Let this be the year you take the plunge. Join the community. Be transformed.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

on polishing brass and rearranging deck chairs

I wrote this piece in April 2012 as a follow up to this parable, but decided not to post it because it was too controversial. But it's time. These are things that need to be said and need to be heard. So let's plunge right in . . .


Titanic Sinking

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic got me thinking about some of the "pithy grabbers" about ships.

That's like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?

Both sayings are getting at the same idea. We shouldn't waste our energy on something that is doomed anyway.

Unfortunately, both of these have been applied by well-meaning Christians to the very planet on which we live. For them, this world is a sinking ship. The idea of heaven so captivates their imaginations that they see no real value in developing sustainable agriculture or environmentally-friendly standards of living. They see public education, politics, and even scientific research as a waste of time. The only thing that matters to these missions-minded and rapture-ready evangelicals is "getting souls saved."

Now, before you throw rotten tomatoes at your screen, let me explain. I consider myself a missions-minded evangelical. My most recent post should make that obvious. But I do not agree with the subset of evangelicals who see this world as a sinking ship from which we are being rescued. I do believe in heaven, but my impression from the Bible is that heaven is a temporary place. ("What?!" you ask.) Heaven is not our final destination. It's more of an interim hangout for all those who have been reconciled to God but have died. [2015: After reading Middleton, I'm less sure it's even that.] The final destination, the real goal of the story God is writing, is the new creation. At the end of John's book of Revelation, where he is granted a vision of spiritual realities, he sees the new creation (a cubic arboreal city) coming down out of heaven. According to John's vision, it will be the place where all the redeemed live and worship the true king. The new creation will be much like this one, with streets and rivers and trees, only it will last forever. If you want to call that new creation "heaven" I won't argue with you, as long as you realize that it's on terra firma, not up in the clouds somewhere.

So what does this have to do with a sinking ship?

The mandate given to Adam and Eve to cultivate and care for the garden (Genesis 2:15) is still in effect. God's intention was that they would continue to extend the boundaries of that garden until it filled the whole earth. Our care for the planet is part of the role God has given to us until that time when he renews it all for eternity. Rather than expecting to be caught up to another dimension of reality, we can anticipate God's transformation of this world. And until then, it's our job to take care of it. Environmental concern is not for its own sake, but is part of extending his just rule in every place.

The idea that "this world is not my home, I'm just a passin' through" can be dangerous. God is glorified when we give our best efforts to reducing pollution, cleaning our waterways, protecting endangered species, and anything else that ensures that our great-grandchildren will be able to enjoy God's beautiful and bountiful creation. In other words, keep on polishing that brass. This ship's gonna be around for a while!

If I've piqued your interest, here are a few resources you can check out for more on this subject:

I've said some controversial things here, and no doubt some of you disagree. My hope is to get us all thinking about how our theology affects the way we care for the earth as well as how we share the good news about what Christ has done for us. Getting saved is not so much a ticket out of here as it is permission to stay for a really long time . . . uh . . . like forever!

Monday, December 14, 2015

rethinking heaven

What if most of what you've ever believed about heaven wasn't true? What then?

Three and a half years ago I wrote a blog post in which I suggested that this was the case. You've never seen that post, because I got cold feet, deciding it was too controversial and not worth the risk.

Since then, a growing chorus of evangelical scholars has been calling us back to a more biblical view of the afterlife (for example, Old Testament scholar C. J. H. Wright and New Testament Scholar N. T. Wright -- and how can you argue with someone who is always "Wright"?). And none has articulated it more clearly and thoroughly than biblical theologian J. Richard Middleton. In fact, his book won the Word Guild Award for the Best Book in Biblical Studies in 2014, and was selected as the Baker gift book of the year for the Institute for Biblical Research annual lecture.

Middleton says we're not going to heaven for eternity. The Bible doesn't teach that. He is not even sure that we go to heaven in the meantime, while we're waiting for Christ's return. His careful reading of passages demonstrates why.

The future that awaits us is not a disembodied existence, with mainly harps and clouds. It includes food and drink, culture and government, creativity and fulfillment. It is in fact much like Spirit-filled life today, minus the sorrow. When Jesus returns we'll walk with him right here on this earth, transformed as part of the (re)new(ed) creation. Jesus' resurrected body is the "firstfruits" of this new creation, affirming the inherent value of the created earth and giving us hope that it can be re-made to overcome the effects of sin and death.

An idea like "heaven" isn't going to die overnight, especially given its well-entrenched history stretching all the way back to Plato. We can hardly talk about salvation without talking about heaven. Middleton's book aims to change that.

Middleton boldly says,
"Not only is the term 'heaven' never used in Scripture for the eternal destiny of the redeemed, but also continued use of 'heaven' to name the Christian eschatological hope may well divert our attention from the legitimate expectation for the present transformation of our earthly life to conform to God's purposes. Indeed, to focus our expectation on an otherworldly salvation has the potential to dissipate our resistance to societal evil and the dedication needed to work for the redemptive transformation of this world. Therefore, for reasons exegetical, theological, and ethical, I have come to repent of using the term 'heaven' to describe the future God has in store for the faithful. It is my hope that readers of this book would, after thoughtful consideration, join me in this repentance." (237, emphasis mine)
Now that's worth pondering. For a long time.

Middleton also says,
"In the present, as the church lives between the times, those being renewed in the imago Dei are called to instantiate an embodied culture or social reality alternative to the violent and deathly formations and practices that dominate the world. By this conformity to Christ—the paradigm image of God—the church manifests God's rule and participates in God's mission to flood the world with the divine presence. In its concrete communal life the church as the body of Christ is called to witness to the promised future of a new heaven and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13)." (175, emphasis mine)
It is striking how often this same point is now being made by respected evangelical scholars. It is a truth whose time has come, and which requires us to re-think carefully how we articulate the gospel. If Jesus didn't die for us "so that we can go to heaven when we die," then why did he die?

Watch out, church. If our generation can truly grasp this, the transforming power of the gospel will be released in profound ways, right here in our midst.

Friday, December 11, 2015

another beautiful thing

I sat in the Denver airport on my way home from Atlanta, waiting to board my plane with all the other travelers. Most stared at their phones. A few had books. Some sipped Starbucks.

An ambulance escorted by police vehicles arrived and parked outside the concourse, lights flashing, a reminder that all was not well in the world. People looked up. Stared. We watched as a woman was taken by stretcher to the ambulance. Long minutes passed before she was whisked away to the hospital. The drama over, I turned to check the screens. Why aren't we boarding yet? It's past time. The line of people exiting the jetway answered my question. Our plane had only just arrived. I settled in for a longer wait.

It was then that a quiet scene in the corner caught my eye. I had seen the pair arrive earlier, noticed the matter-of-fact way the father conversed with his young son, telling him that although their final destination was Sacramento, they would first land in Portland. The boy took it all in, asking questions until he was satisfied that he understood.

Now the father knelt on the carpet, facing his son. The boy was 4 or 5, and I soon realized the rest of us were invisible. He was alone with his Dad on the open sea, watching for land.

"Captain Qwibbles, has the fog lifted? Can you see anything?"
"I'll check right away, sir."

At this the boy went to the window and peered out into the depths, scanning for threats, looking for land. (When his breath steamed up the glass, he licked away the fog. I took a sharp breath, wondering what Dad would do. He must have seen it, but he never broke out of character.)

"There's a giant octopus coming toward us!"
"Prepare the men for action." At this the boy turned away from the window and got very busy. His preparations were urgent. Pointing, lifting, moving large objects through the air. His father stayed calm and engaged. If he had a phone, I never saw it. If he was stressed traveling alone with a child, he never let on. Now and then he would check the monitor to see if it was their turn to board. But the boy seemed entirely oblivious to his real surroundings (and therefore not at all restless because of the long wait).

The young couple sitting beside me were equally enthralled by this most unusual theater. The man turned to me and remarked, "I doubt anyone has ever had this much fun in the airport before."

I saw no bargaining, no bribes, no placating or pleading with the child to behave. There was no impatience, no temper on display. No boredom. No bravado. No superior and knowing glances at other grown ups in the room to validate his behavior. No "look at what a good parent I am." Simply a man, secure in himself, empty handed and calm, engaged with the imaginary world of his son. The boy had no need of an audience and had no idea we were there. Dad was his whole world, and he had his whole dad.

How. rare.

This ought to be normal, but I'm afraid it's not. And we all noticed.
That Dad was an inspiration.

He reminded me of Kameel, though they shared neither race nor occupation. Both men were fully present. Fully available. Fully secure in themselves. Both saw the immense value in another person, looked them in the eye, and let them know. Kameel was boisterous and loud, while this nameless father was calm and quiet, with no desire to attract attention. I saw Kameel at work in a successful career. I saw the other man between here and there, doing an ordinary job for which he'll never be paid. But both were right where they belonged, making the very most of the moment. Doing the most important thing in the world.

And believe me, it was beautiful.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

a beautiful thing

Photo: Aviva by Kameel
The line wound its way out of the Mediterranean restaurant and wrapped around the corner. We took it as a good sign, and so we attached ourselves to the end and waited along with everyone else. The clientele were not just conference attendees, but locals, and no one seemed the least bit disturbed about the wait. Another good sign. Soon we found out why. A smiling hostess with a tray of samples worked her way down the line. "Lentil soup," she offered. "Try it. You'll see. It's good." The lilt of her accent told me that she would know, and her obvious joy in working there boded well. It was good.

Kameel Srouji (Photo: Aviva by Kameel)
Still, nothing could have prepared me for the personna behind the counter. A tastefully decorated wall had shielded our view of the food line until we rounded a corner just steps away. "Hello! Welcome to Aviva. How can I make you happy?" His booming voice filled the atmosphere with life, enthusiasm. His tall frame matched his voice. His sweeping movements made food service an art form. "Excellent choice. It's natural. It's fresh. It's delicious." The customer two ahead of us smiled his thanks and moved down the line. Again the voice boomed, "Welcome to Aviva. You're beautiful. I love you. I need a hug."

A hug? Doesn't that break some kind of food service code? Nevertheless, the businessman in front of us in line ducked around the counter into the kitchen area to hug the man who was larger than life. The chef's eyes twinkled. He lost no time in filling another plate. "Thank you. God bless you. Have a beautiful weekend."

I'm afraid I was a bit thrown, wondering if this was for real. (Is he saying "God bless you" because he heard that the Evangelical Theological Society is meeting next door? Did some study show that enthusiasm is good for business?) When I got to the cashier, I asked, "Is he always like this?" A big smile spread across her face. "Every day!"

Photo: Aviva by Kameel
The energy was palpable.
The food was delectable.

And so the next day, with another friend, I did my time in line again. Brittany had her kids along with her at the conference, and her mom came to watch them. So the five of us waited, tasted falafel, and rounded the corner.

The booming voice. "You came back! How can I make you happy today?" (How can he possibly remember me when he serves hundreds of customers every day? Is it because he looks every one of us in the eye and recognizes that we are made in the image of God?) I suspect so.

Brittany asked if there was something less spicy for her kids. "Ah! For the little ones. This one is on me. No charge. Tell me -- what do they like to eat?" He proceeded to pile a plate with falafel, shwarma, grilled vegetables, and hummus. "Your children are beautiful. Thank you for feeding them real food!"

Kameel's passion for food is obvious!
Photo: Aviva by Kameel
It is not every day that you meet someone who is happy at work, someone energized by their labor who does it with excellence. Kameel is one of those. And the entire restaurant pulsed with this life. It occurred to me then that people come to his restaurant for more than just calories. They pay for lunch and get love, kindness, affirmation. His passion for eating well and living well is contagious.

When I arrived home from Atlanta I was still thinking about Kameel. We found him online, smiling just the way I remembered. I also learned the source of his joy. Kameel is a Catholic believer from Nazareth, eager to share God's love with everyone he meets.

When we have the privilege of meeting someone who has "found their calling" in life it's a beautiful thing. In that moment we get a glimpse of God's creative and redeeming power at work in our midst. Kameel's passion rekindled my own passion to serve God wholeheartedly in my own corner of the world. Whether restaurant or classroom, office or farm, retail outlet or machine shop, when we're doing what we were born to do, and doing it well, He gets the glory.

"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Colossians 3:17)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

the academic conference: why bother?

It's that time of year. Pumpkins and gourds replace watermelons and blueberries. Trees wrap themselves in robes of gold and red and yellow. Birds fly south. And Mom packs to go to ETS, IBR, and SBL. (For the uninitiated, I'm talking about the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature).

My children hardly think it strange for me to pull out my suit jackets and chatter about all the great people I'm about to see. This was my 7th annual conference. My academic career has taken me to New Orleans, Atlanta, San Francisco, Milwaukee / Chicago, Baltimore, San Diego, and now full-circle to Atlanta. Although my children think this is normal, perhaps you're still scratching your head, wondering why anyone would voluntarily spend the time and money to sit for a week listening to academics read their research essays aloud to each other (horrors!).

Scripture and Theology in Global Context at ETS 2015,
(left to right) Gene Green, Emily J. Choge Kerama, Jules
Gonzalez, Raymond Aldred, Sung Wook Chung (photo: C Imes)
But really, what could be better than a ballroom packed with people who write commentaries and teach college courses in Bible and theology for a living? (Ok, it's true. We are not the hippest crowd you've ever seen. But just imagine the collective IQ!)

I have 5 BIG reasons to keep going back for more, and I share them here in hopes that more students in this field will take the plunge. It's worth every penny.

5. Cutting Edge Research with a Walking Bibliography - Before academic books hit the shelves or journals publish peer-reviewed articles, scholars test their ideas on their peers. At the annual meeting I get first dibs on these new ideas. What's more, I can watch the immediate reactions of other scholars. Meeting these people and hearing them talk invigorates my work and helps me remember what I've learned. Instead of a list of names, I see faces and hear voices and recall handshakes.
Christopher H. J. Wright,
author of The Mission of God,
at IBR 2015 (photo: C. Imes)
     At ETS/SBL I'm surrounded by my bibliography! I sit shoulder to shoulder with giants in the field and have opportunities to ask them questions I have always wondered about their work. Maybe someday when I'm all grown up I won't be so giddy about meeting "famous" people. But even now it's a thrill to walk the halls and watch the name tags fly by -- names of men and women whose work has shaped who I am and what I think. In my little corner of the (academic) world, these people are rock stars. (Human, of course, like you and me, but people who have set the course for my generation of biblical scholars and theologians). This year I rode the escalator with Walter Brueggemann, shook hands with Christopher Wright, and spoke with countless others whose books line my shelves.

4. Deep Discounts - Speaking of books, the book tables are every scholar's dream (and every spouse's nightmare!). All the latest publications in biblical studies are there -- as much as 50% off -- AND you can get your hands on them, check the table of contents or indexes, and stock up for another year of learning. Publishers are eager to see their books in the hands of this particular crowd (especially those who are currently teaching), so you can anticipate free books as well. This year, because I've just agreed to teach another class at Multnomah University, I spent a grand total of $9.50 and came home with 14 books. A new record!

3. Professional Experience - I didn't present a paper this year for the annual meeting, but I've given 7 papers at previous conferences. Each time I've been grateful for the scholars who took the time to listen to my ideas, ask penetrating questions, and offer feedback. It's a bit like being graded, in person, by a dozen or more people at once. That can be intimidating. But the discipline is worth it because it makes me stronger as a scholar. As an audience member, I'm learning how to ask better questions and make every conversation count.

2. Networking - At my first annual meeting in 2009, I didn't understand how important this was. My goal was to attend as many papers as possible. Veterans told me I should go to fewer papers and spend more time with people. I still didn't get it. Now I do. After 30 papers, my brain no longer tracks with the speaker. And even with 5 full days of conference attendance, there wasn't enough time to see all the people I wanted to see.
Second Annual IBR Women's Breakfast (photo: C. Imes)
     The annual meeting is where most schools conduct interviews for open faculty positions. It's also where publishers meet with aspiring authors to discuss book projects. Faculty mentors are meeting prospective PhD students. I am fully convinced that the success of my PhD applications was in large part due to positive connections at the annual meeting. Create your own interview! Find out who the decision-makers are and go out of your way to introduce yourself. Every year you attend you'll have a larger network of people you know and the conference will feel more like a happy reunion.
     Here's proof of the value of networking: In 2010 and 2011, I had dinner with the academic dean of an institution in the Portland area, hoping that this conversation would increase my chances of one day landing a job. We met again in 2012, but this time I noticed a shift in the conversation. The academic dean showed an inordinate amount of interest in my experience at Wheaton College, including the climate, schools for the kids, our church, etc. Eventually he admitted an ulterior motive. The following summer Marc Cortez and his family moved to Wheaton where he took a position on the PhD faculty. While I was thrilled for Wheaton, I wondered if my networking had been in vain. Fast forward to 2015, where I learned that Marc will chair my dissertation defense. Nothing goes to waste!

Colleagues from Wheaton College at our Annual PhD
Reunion (Photo: C. Imes)
1. Reunion - Over the course of the week I spent time with people I know from several schools I've attended, many of whom are now scattered around the globe. Add to that people I've met through job interviews, paper presentations, receptions and through mutual friends, and what you get is a marathon reunion of like-minded people from morning 'til night! At the heart of this for me is the "Blockhead" reunion, where all of Daniel Block's former and current students gather for a meal. This is the best network of all -- friends who share our mentor's legacy and who are each working in our corners of the world to introduce others to the captivating Word of God. It's a fabulous group of men and women on whom I have come to depend throughout the year -- a network of experts in various sub-disciplines who can guide me when I need it.

These are my reasons for prioritizing the annual meetings. I realize it's expensive to go, but think about it: how much does a 3-credit class cost in seminary or graduate school? Over $1000, right? You can attend all three conferences (ETS, IBR, and SBL), stay in the conference hotels, and eat your meals out the whole time for less than that, all the while gaining a great deal more personally and professionally than you can ever get from one class. I call that a bargain!