Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top 12 Posts of 2016

2016 has been deeply satisfying for me personally. This is ironic, considering the tumultuous waters we have traveled as a nation and the looming crises internationally. By the grace of God, the collective lament and angst and fear has opened doors for me to write, teach, and speak in ways that are more culturally connected than ever before. This is evident on my blog, as I've come out of my academic cave and touched on issues of race, immigration, social media, vocation, politics, death, and tough questions of the faith.

Perhaps you haven't read it regularly, and you'd like to catch the highlights. In case you blinked, my blog changed titles this year, and so did I! Here are the posts that have (mostly) generated the most hits this year. I've skipped a couple and added one of my own favorites.

On race, immigration, and politics
2/1   refugees and religious extremists -- what to do?
7/12 an open letter to people who think they're white
7/14 so you think you're white
11/7 election day encouragement

On living life fully in God's presence
4/4   learning how to celebrate
5/18 a simple path to joy, part 1 and part 2
11/2 the surprising beauty of unanswered prayer
12/7 undone by the Psalms

On finding our vocation
1/3   leaning in
4/12 lasting impressions and do-overs
7/4   perspective on cape perpetua
7/26 quilted hearts: mentoring for the long haul

Friday, December 23, 2016

Naked Bible Podcast Interview

While I was in San Antonio for the Society of Biblical Literature meetings in November, Dr. Michael Heiser interviewed me for his "Naked Bible Podcast." The Naked Bible is among the top 25 Christian podcasts today, and I was honored to contribute to it. Dr. Heiser, a specialist in Hebrew Bible and Semitics, is known for his work on the 'Divine Council' in the Old Testament and his podcast is making biblical scholarship accessible to laypeople. (I highly recommend his introductory podcasts on the Divine Council!)

In the last 20 minutes or so of Episode 131, Dr. Heiser and I discuss my dissertation, which will come out in print in the BBR Supplement Series, published by Eisenbrauns. I have not yet blogged about my dissertation, so if you're curious about my academic work, this podcast is a great way to find out more. As a special bonus, the beginning of the podcast features Dr. Heiser's interview with Dr. N. T. Wright about his recent book entitled, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus' Crucifixion. Reverend Wright's work has been profoundly helpful to me personally and is setting the trajectory for the direction of scholarship for decades to come.

I hope you find it helpful!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

undone by the Psalms

Tomorrow is (barring a snow day) the last session for my Psalms class at George Fox University.

The Psalms have undone us.

They have stripped us of pretense, caught us unawares, awoken our senses, and shocked us out of our numbness. They have invited us to do the unthinkable -- to say what we really think, and to say it straight to God.

Our mentors this semester have been Walter Brueggemann and John and Kathleen Goldingay, as well as each other. The Goldingays have helped us to think about how to read the Psalms -- even the ugly ones -- as Christians, and to read them boldly.

Brueggemann has opened up new ways of thinking about the Psalms in relation to the world we inhabit. He has repeatedly issued an invitation to name reality. From his perspective, the psalms are far from tame and tepid. They are unruly and dangerous.

Even though I've come to expect this language from Brueggemann, his writings on the praise psalms caught me off guard. Praise psalms are the ones I used to think were typical, predictably cheerful. But Brueggemann woke me from my readerly slumber, highlighting five things about praise in his book, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms:
"First, praise is an act of imagination, not description. It sees the world through the lens of faith and dares" to suppose that there is more than meets the eye (46, bold added).
"Second, hymns of praise are acts of devotion with political and polemic overtones. . . . The very act of praise itself envisions a new world, a different world, a world alternative to the one in front of us. Indeed, hymns of praise are acts of defiance of the world that is in front of us" (47, bold added). 
 "Third, the Psalms voice and are embedded in a larger narrative in which [Yahweh] is the key character and lively agent." This narrative is necessary to the act of praise. It is not vague and spiritual but particular and embodied. "Each generation [is invited] to be a continuing participant in that narrative" (47, bold added).
"Fourth, doxology is the exuberant abandonment of self over to God. . . . Our self-yielding praise is a measure of our capacity to give our lives over to God" (47-48, bold added).
"Fifth and last, the hymns of praise with their exuberant self-abandonment without reservation into the God of large and particular narratives are quite in contrast with what we currently call 'praise songs' . . . [which often constitute] not a ceding of self, but a pre-occupation with self and a private religious expression that lacks depth or breadth" (48, bold added). 
If we really catch hold of this we'll turn everything upside down.
To praise God as king of all the earth relativizes the power of any human ruler.
To praise God as redeemer recognizes both pain and rescue, bondage and freedom.
To praise God as creator acknowledges a personal power behind the beauty around us.
To praise God necessarily involves all of who I am, without pretense, without reservation.

Even here, even in the psalms I thought were business-as-usual, I am undone.

Do I dare to praise?

Do you?

Do we?
"Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD." (Psalm 150:6)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Amazon's Call for Sabbath

"Sundays should come with a pause button." 

So said Amazon in the email we just received.

Was Amazon trying to make a profoundly theological statement? Probably not. (They actually wanted us to "pause" what we were doing and go shopping.) But they capitalized on our collective longing for a break from a to-do list that never seems to end. And in so doing, they pointed to the wisdom of Yahweh's command at Sinai: "Remember the Sabbath."*

The fact is that we all need a break. A rhythmic time of rest. A chance to recharge so we can re-engage our work with fresh energy.

Sabbath is less about attending a worship service (this is important for other reasons) and more about recognizing that we are not machines. We all need to hit the "pause button" or we will quickly reach burnout.

For the Israelites, just rescued from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt, the Sabbath was a weekly reminder of their freedom (see Deuteronomy 5:12–15). Yahweh was their provider. They no longer had a harsh taskmaster who required ceaseless labor. Six days of work was sufficient. Every member of the household, even the animals, were afforded a day of rest. The very architecture of God's creative work recognized the delightful rhythm of work and rest (see Genesis 2:1–3). As a nation, Israel was to model their work week after God's (see Exodus 20:8–11).

Our problem is that we often fall to one extreme or the other. On one side are those of us living a lifestyle of laziness, doing as little work as possible and prioritizing entertainment -- social media, TV, Netflix, and computer games absorb our attention hour after hour. On the other side are those of us who never unplug from work. Task-oriented emails, income generating activity, and household chores permeate our evenings and weekends until our days are indistinguishable from one another. We never stop because if we do, we're afraid we'll be snowed under. We can't rest because we'll fall behind. We must keep pushing or we'll lose our competitive edge.

For those of us in this latter category, Sabbath saves us from ourselves. We are our own most ruthless taskmaster. For us, Sabbath signals our surrender. Jesus is Lord. Not me. God is in control. Not me. The Almighty is my provider. Not me. I can rest in his tender care.

Sabbath is more than a schedule change. It involves a radical reorientation of our perspective. 

Sundays do come with a pause button. We just have to have the discipline to push it. When we do, we'll find that it is one of God's wisest and best gifts.

Did you hit the pause button today? If so, what life-giving and restorative activity took the place of the work you set aside?


*I'm aware the Sabbath falls on Saturday, not Sunday. But in keeping with the rhythm of the early church to meet for worship on Sunday, I'm thinking of that day as the Christian "Sabbath."

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Remembering the Alamo: A Thanksgiving Homily

The crumbling facade of a stone building is missing its roof and part of its second floor. A pile of stone rubble sits in the courtyard. In front of the building are a horse-drawn carriage and several people in 1850s-style clothing: women in long dresses with full skirts and men in fancy suits with top hats.
By Unknown - Frank Thompson, The Alamo (2005),
p. 106, Public Domain 
"Remember the Alamo!"

The cry, unbidden, echoed through my mind the moment I saw it. I was staring at Google Maps, locating my hotel in relation to the rest of the conference venues. And there it was: "The Alamo." Right across the street from my "home base" in San Antonio.

I paused, 5th grade history lessons distant and faded.

"Remember the Alamo?"

What exactly was I supposed to remember? Something about Texas, I think. An old fort, maybe? But that's as far as I got. Whatever happened there had long ago had been discarded as one of those "useless" facts that would not help me in real life.

Israel was also called to "Remember!" Remembering was not just the means to an "A" in history class. It was the key to the survival of their faith. Without memory, faith fades.

And here's where the Alamo comes in. Why don't I remember the Alamo? Because I only heard about it once, in a history class. In order to truly remember, in order for it to matter, the story must be consciously inscribed on my memory through recital. I don't remember the Alamo because the story has not become part of my story. I ceased to tell it as soon as the childhood test was turned in.

Psalm 135 and 136 are psalms of remembrance. They walk through Israel's history, retelling what God has done and thereby keeping those memories alive for each new generation. Psalm 136 sounds the rhythmic refrain, "his love endures forever."
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
His love endures forever...who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures him who led his people through the wilderness;
His love endures forever...and freed us from our enemies.
His love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1, 5, 16, 24)
For Israel to cultivate a faith that endured, they knew they must keep telling the story.

My quick weekend trip to San Antonio left no time for sightseeing. I attended three breakfasts, two receptions, ten paper presentations, a council meeting, seven meetings reconnecting with friends and mentors, a podcast interview, and two publisher meetings. In between all this I wove my way through the book displays, hunting for spring textbooks, pitching book ideas, and buying the books on my list.

I was told it only took a half hour to see the Alamo, but since my hotel was a 10-minute walk from the conference venue, and I was going strong from 7am to 10:45pm each day, I missed the opportunity to see it.

The Alamo (Photo: Rex Koivisto)
Ironically, though, I will always remember the Alamo. I will remember it as the place where God came through in a dramatic way for me. I arrived in San Antonio with a "hole" on my resumé. I was (essentially) unpublished. Sure, I had written several book reviews, and I had a small contribution in a student resource on the Septuagint, and I had been blogging for years, but in order to get a permanent job, I would need a book contract. This was the next crucial step in my transition from "student" to "professor"—to demonstrate that I could and would make an ongoing contribution to scholarship.

I went to San Antonio with one prayer and one goal: a book contract.

And I came home with two!

It was a miracle weekend, and we will always be grateful.

Wikipedia tells me that the Alamo was an important battle in the fight for Texan independence. It was not a victory, but a battle the Texans lost to the army of Santa Anna. That defeat became a rallying cry for Texans to join the cause and take back territory. In a sense, then, my Alamo was years ago, when I stared failure in the face and considered giving up.

I am so glad I didn't. God has carried us through thick and thin.
His love endures forever!

What has God done in your life this year? Today is the day of remembering. Tell the story as you gather with family and friends. Only in the retelling will we "remember the Alamo."

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

the best news since graduation

It's been a really big year for the Imes family.

  • First, there was the last-minute call from the department chair at George Fox University, inviting me to teach a spring course . . . immediately. Of course I said yes.
  • Then there was my successful dissertation defense on April 1 -- an event that was actually fun!
  • I came home to a brand new car (my first ever), a surprise from my parents.
  • All of us returned to Wheaton for my graduation in May and reconnected with so many dear friends.

And it felt like the whole world was celebrating with us.

In the intervening months I have had speaking engagements, dissertation revisions, a summer intensive, a fantastic week of VBS, a publishing project for Zondervan, and a new semester with three great classes -- Exodus and Psalms at George Fox University, and Prophets (online) at Multnomah University.

But this . . . this is the best news since graduation. Last week I descended on San Antonio with thousands of other scholars for the annual meetings of the Institute for Biblical Research and the Society of Biblical Literature. My hope was to return home with a book contract. I got two!

My dissertation has been accepted for publication in the Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement Series with Eisenbrauns. The title is Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai: A Re-Examination of the Name Command of the Decalogue. I hope it will be available by this time next year! It's especially gratifying to have my work appear in this series alongside two of my "Blockhead" brothers (a.k.a. students of Daniel Block), Matthew Patton and Austin Surls. Both men have been stellar examples of solid scholarship paired with a servant's heart and commitment to the church. It's an honor to be in print together. Soli deo gloria!

A peek at the Illustrated Genesis in Hebrew, by Timothy McNinch
I also come home from San Antonio with a surprise contract to produce an Illustrated Exodus in Hebrew for GlossaHouse. It will include the entire Hebrew text of Exodus with an English translation. The illustrations were done by Keith Neely. I will create the text boxes and speech bubbles, insert the text, adapt the pictures as needed, and provide an English translation. It will be a great resource for Hebrew Reading classes or students who want to keep practicing their reading skills.

I also had a very positive conversation with another publisher about writing a book for laypeople that includes insights from my MA thesis and doctoral dissertation. I'll submit a formal proposal for that project in the next few weeks.

It was "The Year of the Publisher" for me at SBL. I'm so grateful for these opportunities to contribute to the scholarly community as well as build resources for students and laypeople to enhance their understanding of Scripture. I've got my work cut out for me in 2017!

Monday, November 7, 2016

election day encouragement

It is hard to imagine a more sobering election cycle in America. I watched the primaries with interest and the nominations with alarm. I am quite simply speechless. Are these really the best candidates for President that our nation could produce? I'm tempted to list the shocking specifics that make this election unprecedented, but you've had enough of that already, and my goal is to encourage you.

I borrow the words of the prophet Micah:
"Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel.
Should you not embrace justice, you who hate good and love evil?" (Micah 3:1–2a)
"Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice and distort all that is right;
who build Zion with bloodshed, and Jerusalem with wickedness.
Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the LORD's support and say,
'Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us." (Micah 3:9–11) 
Like ancient Israel, this campaign season has been drenched with distortion and lies, wickedness and injustice, and yet the candidates vie for endorsement from religious leaders. Tomorrow as millions of Americans head to the polls, they will likely send a clear signal that it's okay to cheat your way to the top, okay to take advantage of the system, okay to abuse power to get what you want, and okay to consider yourself above the law. To be clear, I am not vilifying any single candidate. Either major party nominee will bring with them to the White House a long list of offenses. It's enough to invite despair.

But then there's the Psalms. I've just read through the "enthronement psalms" -- Psalms 93–99. These psalms are intriguing, in part because they directly follow the despair of an apparently failed Davidic covenant (Psalm 89), in a section of the book that mentions neither David nor another human king. Who's in charge? How can we have enthronement if there's no king? For those in exile, this was an urgent question.

For the enthronement psalms the answer is simple: Yahweh is king over the whole earth. And what a candidate he is!

God is utterly blameless:
"Your statutes, LORD, stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days." (Psalm 93:5)
God is full of loving compassion for the weak:
"When I said, 'My foot is slipping," your unfailing love, LORD, supported me." (Psalm 94:18)
God is praiseworthy:
"Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise." (Psalm 96:4a) 
 Even his foreign policy is celebrated:
"The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice." (Psalm 97:1)
God will make just decisions and treat people fairly:
"He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity." (Psalm 98:9b)
Now that's a leader I can get behind.

And so on this election day, vote your conscience. Make every effort to elect leaders whose character will compel them to uphold justice and govern wisely. Choose the best you can. But remember this: our hope does not rest in humans. The one who sits enthroned above all is the God who saves.
"Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy." (Psalm 99:9)
Against the black backdrop of this election cycle, this is very good news indeed.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

the surprising beauty of unanswered prayer

Do you ever wonder if you're missing something when it comes to prayer?
I'm right there with you.

Our prayer life is often anemic.

We pray for good weather, safe travel, good health, a good night's sleep. We pray for good news from the doctor, success in our job interview, a good grade on a test. We thank God for all the blessings we enjoy -- like food, shelter, family, friends. And then we dive back into the cacophony of noise and images and urgent to-do lists that distract us from thinking much more about it. In a pinch we send up a rocket prayer for peace or strength or wisdom to make it through whatever threatens to make us late to our next appointment or miss our next deadline.

Is that all there is to it?

The more I read the Psalms, the more I'm convinced that we need a prayer overhaul.

The Psalms invite us to come as we are, to express the full range of our most carefully guarded thoughts in God's presence. They model for us raw emotion -- unflinching honesty, unhinged violence, unabated longing, unadulterated gratitude, unfiltered praise. Biblical Psalms run the whole gamut of attitudes and experiences -- settled, wrestling, protesting, celebrating, lamenting.

Until we're desperate for another way to pray, I suspect most of us prefer the cheerful psalms -- psalms that offer reassurance and comfort, reminding us of all that our great God has done, assuring us of all he will do to make things right. But there comes a season when these psalms merely rub salt in the wound. It is then we need the darker psalms -- psalms that echo our own experiences of alienation and struggle, psalms willing to voice the questions we thought were off limits. Most of these darker psalms have a note of hope that resolves the tensions of the psalmist's experience. They begin with questions and end with answers.

But not all do. This week I discovered two psalms that break the pattern: Psalms 88 and 89. These come at the end of "Book 3" of Psalms (Psalms 73–89). Neither one ties a neat bow on the psalmist's ache. They simply leave it there, heaving and trembling, waiting for a response. And that response never comes.

Psalm 88 is strikingly different from other lament psalms for other reasons, too. While others complain about vicious enemies who attack, bent on destruction, Psalm 88 mentions no human foe. Here the problem is none other than God.
You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves . . .
Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:6–7, 14; NIV)
Can you see the direct challenge to God? Instead of resolving this tension with a closing note of hope, the psalm ends in darkness.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor — darkness is my closest friend. (v. 18)
In Hebrew, "darkness" is the final word of the psalm. No happy endings here. The psalmist has dared to confront God. And now he sits alone in darkness.

Psalm 89 begins with praise, and a long recital of all the cosmic wonders God has done. We might initially think that this psalm offers relief from the despair of Psalm 88. Another long stanza retells the glorious covenant with David from 2 Samuel 7 -- God's promise that David and his descendants will reign over God's people "as long as the heavens endure" (Psalm 89:29). This is the centerpiece of Israel's national theology, her most treasured promise.


Everything changes in verse 38. Clear through to verse 51, the psalmist confronts God with the brutal reality that does not match God's promise.
But you have rejected, you have spurned,
you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
and have defiled his crown in the dust. (Psalm 89:38–39; NIV)
The psalmist is understandably distressed. We could understand if Israel's enemies attacked her king. But God? And he dares to call God to account.
How long, LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire? (v. 46)
And then the piercing question, one that looks God full in the face:
Lord, where is your former great love,
which in your faithfulness you swore to David? 
Whatever happened to the Davidic Covenant? Has it expired? Can we no longer count on God to fulfill the promise?

The last word of this Psalm in Hebrew is Mashiach (=Messiah). But this is no triumphant Messiah. He is the subject of mockery, shamed, plundered, and scorned, with his crown and throne in the dust.

Don't be fooled by the statement of praise in verse 52. This is not the end of the psalm. It is the standard closing to the end of this "book" within the larger book of Psalms, added by the editor of the entire collection (see 41:13; 72:18–19; and 106:48). While it affirms that the LORD is still to be praised, it does nothing to answer the psalmist's prayer.

We sit, with both psalmists, in the dark, in the dust. Waiting.

I find a strange comfort in these psalms. They may be unanswered, but they have been kept for us. That in itself implies that God heard their cries. The fact that these appear in sacred Scripture tells me that unanswered prayer is a normal part of the experience of faith. They invite us to bring our darkest and most dangerous questions to God. Doing so does not disqualify us from the faith. Quite the opposite. Doing so is the prerequisite of faith — trusting God with how we really feel and with what we really think.

These unanswered psalms are a snapshot of faithful prayer. Having voiced our desolation to God, we wait. That praying, that waiting — they are the stuff of faith. And while we don't see an immediate answer to Psalms 88 and 89, they are beautiful in their own way because they preserve a part of our shared experience. They show us we are in good company. And because they are tucked in the middle of a host of other prayers, answered ones, we know that they are not the end of the story.

Do we perhaps avoid certain kinds of prayer because we doubt they will be answered? God invites us to pray without holding back. No desire is too deep, no darkness is too ugly, no hope is too outlandish, no accusation too blasphemous. We can say it all. And then we wait.

Perhaps this is what we've been missing.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Time Travel, New Testament-Style

The world of the New Testament is foreign to us -- languages, customs, religions, geography, and politics are so different from our own -- and crossing that gap can be challenging. Thankfully, two esteemed New Testament professors have made it a little bit easier for the rest of us to experience that world. Bruce Longenecker (Baylor University) and Gary Burge (Wheaton College) have each written an imaginative work of historical fiction to illuminate the New Testament.

Burge's book, A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion (IVP, 2015) follows an officer of the imperial army, Appius, and his trusted servant, Tullus, as they are assigned to various locations around Syria and Palestine. At the end of the book, they are assigned to Capernaum and their paths cross that of a simple prophet from Galilee, an encounter that changes everything. Burge's novel is easy to read and hard to put down. The story pulled me in. Informative text boxes are placed strategically throughout the book, offering background information on 1st century practices.

Longenecker's book, The Lost Letters of Pergamum (Baker, 2003/2016), is set a few decades after Jesus' resurrection, in the Asian city of Pergamum. His main character is a Roman nobleman named Antipas whose life revolves around the acquisition of both wealth and honor and the avoidance of shame. The story itself is the collected correspondence of Antipas and Luke, who had been a traveling companion of the apostle Paul and the author of a 2-part Gospel (known to us as Luke and Acts). Luke and Antipas share a love of history and a familiarity with the Roman way of life. However, when Antipas begins reading a copy of Luke's Gospel and associating with Christians, his world begins to unravel. A surprise ending brings the book to a satisfying finish. The genius of Longenecker's book is that we encounter Jesus and his teachings through the eyes of someone at home in the Roman empire. His sophisticated tale takes a bit more effort than Burge's to engage, given the appropriately stilted style of letter-writing, but it is well worth the energy.

The two novels are exactly the same length (187 and 189 pages, respectively). Both are rooted in extensive research on New Testament backgrounds, and involve real figures such as the Emperor Domitian and Herod Antipas. Burge takes his point of departure from the New Testament stories recorded in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Longenecker's inspiration is Revelation 2:13, and he clarifies in an appendix which points of the narrative are fictional and which are not.

Sensitive readers should be forewarned that both books are rather bloody, giving detailed descriptions of gladiatorial games, and (in the case of Burge) battle scenes. Burge also incorporates aspects of the sexual lives of his characters (with concubines and prostitutes in particular), illuminating age-old problems. I read both of these within the past week, hoping to decide which to assign for my students to read in "Gospels, Acts, and Revelation" next semester. Unfortunately, it didn't make my decision any easier! I loved them both. Which one will you read first?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

coming up for air

I've learned something about myself.

When I'm in the middle of a semester, I feel less compulsion to write blog posts because I already have an outlet. My students — like it or not — get to hear what I'm thinking about.

Add to that three women's retreats in the space of a single month, and you'll understand why a month has passed since my latest post. I haven't run out of things to say. It's just that I've already said them. In person. It's been a rich season, full of the joy of rekindled friendships and growing momentum in the classroom, but rather breathless.

Last night I turned a corner. After the big push to get three kids settled in three different schools (elementary, middle, and high school), get into the groove with my own classes, and meet a publishing deadline, I'm coming up for air. Yesterday I had lunch with a student and felt the freedom to stop and chat with colleagues. Last night I ordered a magazine, did a load of dishes, dusted our bedroom, and looked for a new medical provider online. I caught up on old emails and started strategizing about the next major thing on my calendar: a trip to San Antonio for academic meetings (IBR and SBL). I can't even tell you how good that feels.

They say that class prep will take as much time as you give it. And that's true. My pattern has been to start with prep and let the rest of my to-do list fill in the cracks. But I'm learning that I might be better off doing things the other way around. At the very least, I need to get better at self-care. It's been over 5 years since I've seen a doctor (my kids are all in the same boat!). There's just never enough time. That needs to change.

Breathing feels good. I hope to keep doing so regularly.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11 and Biblical Prophecy

Fifteen years ago today I woke up in Aurora, Oregon to the phone ringing. Oma was down for a brief visit on her way to California. Eliana was less than 6 months old.

It was Dad. "Turn on the TV," he said. "A plane just hit a building."

I was puzzled. Planes crash several times a year, but this was the first time Dad had called us to turn on the news. I was thinking, "That's sad, but is it sad enough to wake me up early?"

Then, gathered around the TV, we saw that it wasn't just any building. To see the New York skyline like that, with billows of smoke pouring out, we began to wonder. "Could this have been an accident?" It seemed that to hit the World Trade Center one would have to be . . . trying. We shuddered at the thought.

The minutes ticked by and we watched live footage of the panic, as everyone but first responders raced away from the scene.

Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, which departed from Boston en route for Los Angeles, is shown in a flight path for the South Tower of the World Trade Towers Sept, 11, 2001. The North Tower burns after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the tower at 8:45 a.m. (AP Photo/Aurora, Robert Clark)...A...NEW YORK...NY...USA
9/11 Photo (Source:
Then, the unthinkable. We watched on live television as the second plane hit the second tower. We gasped. A sickening feeling gripped us. Horror hung in the air like the smoke now billowing from both towers. It was obvious now:

This was deliberate.
This was coordinated.
Whoever it was was attacking America.
Where would they strike next?

The answer came as the morning unfolded. Long minutes stretched by as we sat, our eyes glued to the screen.

Within 30 minutes, a plane crashes into the side of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Danny's mom is there in D.C. for work. We call her. She's close enough to see the smoke from her hotel window.

Another 20 minutes pass. Suddenly, the already unthinkable tragedy grows sickeningly worse: the South Tower of the World Trade Center is swallowed up by the ground before our very eyes. We watch live as it simply vanishes, leaving great billows of grey smoke.

Less than 10 minutes later Flight 93 crashes into a Pennsylvania field, killing everyone on board. While the story takes time to decipher, it is clear that this plane was headed to the White House.

Twenty minutes later the North Tower collapses into itself, leaving an aching emptiness in the New York skyline and in the hearts of every American.

"The worst day" was a barrage on our senses. It stretched credulity. We were living an apocalyptic nightmare. Oma was supposed to leave that morning to drive herself to southern California. I remember our fear -- where will they strike next? We urged her to stay another day, to wait things out and see whether it was safe. She opted to go. At 81, she had lived through WW2 and felt it was no good to sit around, anxiously waiting. She had a life to live. And so she went.

9/11 shaped us as a nation. Far from defeat, we rallied as a country and experienced unity and a singleness of purpose like never before in my lifetime. Prayer services were packed. All of us cried out to God with our grief, our questions, our hopes. Our national resolve was strong to prevent future terror attacks and eliminate their sources.

This reminds me of the Old Testament prophets.

Many people find it hard to connect with the biblical prophets because of the great gaps that separate us -- geographically, chronologically, and culturally. We're a long way from ancient Israel and Judah. We understand little about the historical and political challenges they faced. Our respective cultures are vastly different.

However, we have something in common that can help us bridge that gap. We have 9/11.

The Old Testament prophets were God's spokesmen to their own generation. They pointed out the failure of the covenant people of Israel and Judah to walk faithfully with their God, Yahweh. They announced the judgement that God had planned. And they spoke of the restoration, God's vision for a future in which divine blessings would again flow through the land.

How does this relate to 9/11? The devastation felt by the people of the northern kingdom of Israel in the exile of 722 BC and the southern kingdom of Judah in the exile of 586 BC mirrors the devastation of Ground Zero, only worse. For the people of Israel and Judah, Palestine was not only home, but it was the only home possible. God had promised it to them. It was the physical proof of their covenant relationship. When the Assyrians bore down on the Northern Kingdom and dragged the Israelites into exile, those ten tribes dissolved into the sands of history. Like the South Tower, at least 500 years of national history was swallowed alive. When the Babylonians gained the upper hand and attacked Judah in 586 BC, they decimated the temple in which God had promised to be present and the city in which God had appointed David and his descendants to rule. Exile brought an abrupt end to proper worship, legitimate kingship, and to the nationhood of God's people.

Where was God anyway? 
How could God have allowed these things to happen to his own people?
Have God's promises been annihilated? 
Has the covenant come to an end? 
What does it look like to be God's faithful followers when everything we know has changed?
How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land? (Ps 137)

If we can remember how we felt on 9/11, how we were shaken as a nation and how we grieved and feared and raged and sat stunned, then we're in a position to identify with the ancient people of Israel and Judah. The prophets addressed them shortly before, during, and after the exile, when they were wrestling deeply with the meaning of the events that played out around them.

God's word to them continues to speak powerfully today — to any of us who identify ourselves as disciples of Jesus, and who are therefore members of the (re)new(ed) covenant. The prophets reveal to us the devastating consequences of unfaithfulness and God's glorious vision for restoration.

My children do not remember 9/11. Our oldest was just a baby, and the others were just a gleam in my eye. This morning we watched a video together so that they could see what I saw on that fateful morning, and so that we could wrestle together with the way it shaped our nation. My children may not have experienced 9/11, but they cannot afford to ignore it. It's part of who we are.

The same is true with all of us who claim allegiance to Jesus. We can't afford to neglect the message of the prophets, because they address the people of God at one of the most devastating and pivotal times in our history. Their story is our story. We must listen and learn.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

a college student's back-to-school prayer

Thank you, Lord,
for a new semester.

Thank you for providing the means for me to study
in a community of fellow learners.

Sharpen my mind,
so that I can learn to think clearly and critically.

Melt my resistance
to new ideas that are good and right and true.

Calm my anxiety,
as I face an overwhelming list of assignments to complete.

Banish fear
so that I can embrace the task of learning with joy.

Help me to take one day at a time.

Open my heart
to those around me,
so that I can form deeper friendships.

Make me a blessing
to my fellow students
and to the faculty and staff who serve us.

Create here a community
in which transformation can take place

Equip us
to carry out the work you have planned
for us to do.

Above all, may we glorify you
through all we say and do this semester.

For the honor of your name,

Sunday, September 4, 2016

encountering the light of Christ

When you enter the doors of a new church, anything could happen. Churches with dwindling numbers are often surprised to see a new face, as the greeters were this morning to see me. But their warmth made me feel right at home.

A single ring of chairs stood empty around the center microphone on the circular platform, expectant. A Steinway occupied the far end of the circle, its melodies soaring to fill the sanctuary and encircling all of us.

Pews faced the middle. I sat in the second row, waiting, observing. I was early. In time, others came and found seats in the first few rows. I knew no one. I had been invited by the son-in-law of a member to speak during the Sunday school hour. That was my only earthly connection.

A pamphlet in the pew back explained how a Quaker-style service works. Quakers embrace silence as they embrace each other, welcoming the opportunity to listen and learn from the spirit of Christ in their midst. The unprogrammed quiet is a soothing balm in a hurried life.

A man rolled in on a motorized wheelchair, making his way to the front to greet another worshipper, and then me. Jerry refused to let his disability cripple his contribution to the warmth of the community. (I learned later that he was relatively new himself, and that the man he greeted was there for only the second time. Signs of life.)

As the service unfolded, I gathered that this was a grieving community, searching for direction, wondering how to respond faithfully to a series of events that left most of their pews empty. I wondered, then, if I should scrap my seminar on 'Understanding Biblical Prophecy' and speak instead about lament, or about how to be rooted in the face of life's storms (Psalm 1–2). How does one walk into a community and speak without first listening long? first loving and hearing?

In those quiet moments, I asked the Lord to guide me. By the time I reached the classroom after the service, I knew I should stick with my original topic and trust that God had guided my preparation. I suspected (rightly, I'm told) that Quakers typically camp out in the Gospels. That was my bridge to the prophets. How can one possibly understand the richness of the Gospels without an understanding of the Old Testament prophets? Spontaneously, I began in John 9, linking Jesus' miracle to Isaiah's commission in chapter 6. Then we moved into Isaiah 7 to examine verse 14, always a Christmas favorite. Both passages illustrate the value of reading the text closely for its historical, literary, and theological dimensions. They also illustrate the inherent dangers when we don't.

The hour flew by, followed by several follow-up conversations and a long lunch. I returned home with a full heart, grateful for the privilege of fellowship with other Christ-followers and grateful that I have the most wonderful subject matter in the world to teach -- God's Word -- which truly does not return void.

Encounters like this one are not accidental. God uses each personal connection in some way as we spur one another on to love and good deeds. A Quaker might say that the light of Christ within each of us illuminates the community as we gather. I'd say that pretty well sums up what happened today!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

faith in search of lament

If our picture of the Christian life is primarily shaped by the evangelical church service, what is missing? How might it be skewed?

This is the question I posed to myself after a campfire chat with a faculty colleague.

The Scriptures contain the full range of expression that animates the life of faith, and we develop the capacity to live faith-fully by patterning our own expressions after these.

Lord, teach us to pray. 

But for our church services we typically take a select few of these elements and canonize them, leaving others nearly untouched.

We sing praise.
We greet one another.
We preach the Word.
We exhort.
We take up an offering for those in need.
We pronounce a blessing.
We remember the Lord's death by celebrating communion.
Occasionally we baptize.
We pray for the sick.
Now and then we pray for our nation's leaders.

What's missing?

We generally don't confess our sin (at least not out loud, to each other).
We don't seek refuge.
We don't complain.
We don't wrestle out loud over what's wrong and broken in our world.
We don't lament.

That is a problem.

It's a problem because the lack of confession and lament leaves us with a monotone, anemic faith. We miss out on the richness available to us in the Scriptures, and we lose touch with reality. Our faith becomes compartmentalized rather than a fully integrated part of our selves.

Put another way, Job and Jeremiah and David and Habakkuk and many other biblical writers model for us the language of lament. Do we think we no longer need these vehicles of expression?

What would it look like to incorporate the language of the Psalms -- not just the praise psalms, but the laments, too -- into our services? How can we create a reverent space where the groans of the human heart may be articulated?

How might it feel to leave things unresolved -- to refuse to tie a neat bow on it all at the end of the service because we as a community have become accustomed to letting God do the answering and not to answer for him?

Here I'm thinking of Elihu, the "friend" who shows up out of nowhere in the book of Job. After Job's complaint is laid out before God, Elihu rushes in to answer on God's behalf. Like the other three "friends" who respond to Job, Elihu is angered by Job's words (Job 32:1-5). He feels a strong need to defend God and put Job in his place, rushing in to fill the silence with correction. But when the Almighty does reply, Elihu's words are swallowed up in the storm with everyone else's. Literarily, the lesson is clear: God doesn't need us to answer on his behalf. God can speak for himself.

When we rush to the answer we lose the depth that comes through sustained waiting. To brood over our grief -- to articulate our deepest longings for God to do something -- positions us to experience God's answer more profoundly. Ignoring our wound, we miss out on the opportunity for healing.

Lord, teach us to pray. 

Sure, now and then we're brave enough to complain to God on our own. Why did you let this happen? God do something! But communal lament -- lament as a body -- is a lost art. If we could find the voice of corporate lament it would open up new avenues to enter into one another's journey. Rather than fixing each other, we could join each other side-by-side in articulating the heart's cry.

Why should we be scared of lament when the Scriptures devote so much time and space to it? Why do we feel it's irreverent to complain when complaint is the backbone of books like Psalms, Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Job?

Life hurts. Missionaries get stabbed. Cancer returns. ISIS prevails. Lives are lost in meaningless altercations. Believers are falsely accused. When grief, complaint, longing, sorrow, and confession are kept to ourselves, out of sight, the muscles of our faith atrophy, and we lose the art of responding faithfully to our trials. It's a missed opportunity for our community to grow together in love.

One of my students, Beth Erickson, created this beautiful graphic poster of Habakkuk's lament in light of the recent racial tensions in America. I share it here with her permission. This poster is an example of one way we can begin to incorporate lament into our worship.

Every year, Jewish communities read the entire book of Lamentations aloud together. When I did this with my class on the Old Testament Prophets this summer, the effect was powerful.

Lord, teach us to pray.

Friday, August 5, 2016

gems from Jobes on James

I've spent the past few days immersed in Karen Jobes' chapters on the book of James in Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles. I think of Dr. Jobes like I think of a forest ranger in a National Park. While I can appreciate the park's beauty on my own, a few moments with the ranger opens up new worlds of understanding, showing me what I would otherwise miss and helping me understand the mysteries of nature. Dr. Jobes does that for these New Testament books. Having spent half a lifetime immersed in these texts, she is a proficient guide who can help me get the most out of reading them.

Here are some of my favorite gems on the book of James (emphasis mine):

"Simply put, the purpose of the letter [of James] was to instruct Jewish Christians how to live faithfully to Christ within their heritage as Jews." (166)
"James is presenting the Christian concept of a whole and unified person as the goal of spiritual maturity." (202)
"Every test [or trial in life] occasions a theological crisis, when the believer is more easily deceived or confused about who God is and how God acts." (167)
"Love for God expressed through love for neighbor is the wellspring of the faithful life wisely lived." (205)
"What is distinctive in [Jesus'] message is that he proclaims himself to be the way to life's highest good -- the way to eternal life reconciled with God." (211)
"Whatever a profession of faith in Jesus Christ might mean, it cannot mean a license to live free of God's moral order." (221)
"If believers of means [i.e. wealthy Christians] rely on their resources rather than God, if they expect to be treated with privileged status, if they oppress others to sustain self-interest, then they are 'the rich' who are condemned. . . . James's point is that Christians with resources must live differently than 'the rich' by caring for the poor; otherwise they have not truly understood and believed the gospel." (229)
On the perceived conflict between the theology of Paul and James, Dr. Jobes writes:
"Given that James and Paul, as well as Peter, left the Jerusalem Council [see Acts 15] in agreement on the epoch-making decision that Gentiles would be received as Christians without becoming Jewish and keeping the law of Moses, it seems unlikely that they disagreed over the fundamental nature of faith and salvation." (173)
"James was not writing in reference to justification but rather to describe the moral responsibilities that flow from saving faith." (219)
The final gem is a quotation from Ellen Charry's By the Renewing of Your Minds, quoted in a sidebar in Letters to the Church. This may be my new all-time favorite quote:
"The central theological task is and has always been pastoral, assisting people to know God, and by knowing him to be enabled to strive toward the excellence of his character in their own lives." (222)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

a textbook that inspires

I'm working on a really fun assignment this week. About 6 weeks ago, Zondervan Publishers asked me to help them develop instructional resources for a textbook by one of my mentors, Karen Jobes, on Hebrews and the General Epistles (James through Jude). What I'm writing won't come out in print, but it will be made available digitally to professors who adopt this textbook for their New Testament courses. I'm writing chapter summaries, collecting key words, coming up with quiz questions, and developing basic PowerPoint slides for classroom use. I've used Zondervan's instructional resources like this for the classes I've taught, and believe me -- they are a blessing!

The BEST part is that I'm getting paid to learn.

Last week I was introduced to a new couple, and when they found out I was a Bible scholar, they popped their current nagging question, "So who wrote Hebrews?" It just so happened that I had worked through Dr. Jobes' chapter on the authorship of Hebrews the previous day, so I had an answer ready. Gaining knowledge is one benefit of this kind of study. (By the way, if you want to know the answer you'll have to read the book for yourself!)

But what strikes me most about this textbook is the depth of wisdom it offers for the Christian life. Dr. Jobes' writing is clear and compelling. Her theological insights are profound. Here are a few of my favorite gems from the chapters on Hebrews:
"Death is not a punishment; it is the inevitable consequence of turning away from the source of life, which is God himself." (119) 
"[Sabbath rest] is not an invitation to idleness, spiritual or otherwise. Rather, it is a place of being where the normal routines of a right relationship with God can be established and enjoyed, because Christ has resolved the crisis of humanity's separation from God and an eternal stability has been achieved." (131)
"Anyone worried about committing the unforgivable sin or becoming apostate hasn't done so. Apostates are by definition hardened to God and arrogant toward what he has said by the Son." (141)
"The reason the unforgivable sin is unforgivable is that by rejecting the work of Christ as something other than the gracious work of God, one cuts oneself off from the only means of forgiveness and the only salvation that God offers. It is, therefore, the only sin that cannot be forgiven." (140) 
"To stay in a spiritually immature state under the delusion that it is okay to sin is like walking backward in the dark toward the cliff of apostasy." (141) 
Dr. Jobes also has great sections on the cultural and Scriptural background for understanding Jesus' role as the Son of God, on what it means in a Roman context to be an "heir," on the reasons that Jesus supersedes the Old Testament, and on the meaning of "perfection" in the book.

If you're a layperson who is motivated to understand the New Testament more deeply, you could profitably work your way through this book on your own. It's filled with helpful pictures, charts, and a glossary that will guide you. If you're a professor who will be teaching on this part of the Bible, don't miss this great resource!

p.s. In case you're wondering, Zondervan didn't ask me to write this. I simply felt that this resource was too good to keep to myself!

Friday, July 29, 2016

compelled to create: art and faith

What must you do?
I'm not referring to your to-do list.
What are you compelled to do?
(besides eat chocolate)
What can you not help doing?

Asher Lev could not help but draw. His eyes would follow the contours of windows, of trees, of faces and their bodies. His fingers would trace shapes over and over, practicing. He filled reams of paper and acres of canvas. He dulled pencils and emptied tubes of paint. When he should have been studying Torah or mathematics, Asher drew. When he should have been listening, he absorbed himself in shadow and light, wondering how the effect could be achieved on paper.

What is it for you?
What were you born to do?

Asher's poor father could not understand him. He called drawing "foolishness" and chided his son repeatedly, angered by his distraction. But Asher could not shut off his fount of creativity. He even drew in his sleep (on the wall! with red crayon!). Asher's Hasidic Jewish community could not understand him. His classmates jeered at him, calling him "Picasso."

A dear friend of mine is an artist. After years of chronic pain, she's made a profound discovery—art is a form of praise. Pain has become the crucible for some of the best art she's ever birthed, more original and more meaningful, and therefore a part of her healing journey. Somehow her finger-gripped pencil bypasses the toxic cesspool of her own complaints, words that only drag her down. It liberates the praise-filled perspective she longs to have. She reminded me that the same has been true of my writing.

Enter the Rabbi—the most powerful figure in Asher's world. As his father's boss, the Rabbi's word was canon. He was never disobeyed. I expected him to come crashing down on the young artist, to forbid him to draw or paint. But in a remarkable plot twist, he doesn't. I won't spoil the rest of the story. If you haven't read the book yourself, put it on your list right now: My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok.

The friend I mentioned took a risk yesterday, showing her drawings to her parents. One brusque comment could have destroyed her, but by the magnificent grace of God, they gushed, awed by what she had created.

Providentially, after finishing the novel, I picked up the summer magazine of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, my alma mater. The theme? "Arts in the Church"—page after page of beautiful reflections on the place of art in our faith journey. Truly refreshing.

One article in particular struck me as appropriate: "Made by a Maker to be a Maker," by Bruce Herman, an artist and professor of art at Gordon College in Massachusetts. Herman's reflections mimic Asher's journey as an artist into adulthood. He says, "the child creates art from a place of fearlessness and natural freedom. Art and fear are not good bedfellows." (Fear makes a lousy bedfellow for dissertations, too, by the way.)

Night by Bruce Herman (1991)
According to Herman, "The artistic act is one that can only be wholehearted."As soon as Asher Lev discovers this, when he gives himself fully to the artistic process, he creates his greatest masterpiece. But it may cost him everything. Art is not easy. It is a massive risk.

In some cases, so is a blog post. Or a meal for honored guests. Or an academic paper. Or a remodeled kitchen. Or a counseling session. Or a sermon.

Quoting Tolkien, Herman says, "we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make." As I contemplate my next major writing project, I hesitate, but only for a moment. Just as Asher must paint, so I must write. I have no other option. All that I love will find expression on the pages of my next book. Fear has no place, only a complete devotion to the craft of writing until the project is birthed.

Herman insists, "The kind of makers we are to become involves echoing God's own character in our creative process." That involves self-sacrifice and risk, the possibility that it won't be well-received, or that we'll be misunderstood. But we were created to create. And so I must. And so must you. Let's make something good.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

quilted hearts: mentoring for the long haul

Dear Hazel,

I wasn't ready yet for you to go.
In your own unassuming way, you "held the ropes" for us.

It's not just that I loved you. You loved me back, too.

I bumbled into your sewing circle in the church basement, a young mom full of zeal. Mentoring was what I wanted most, advice for how to raise children, how to make my way in the world. Since I was 40 years younger than the next youngest member of the group, I thought it an ideal place to learn. I prodded, asking questions, seeking wisdom. The women hunched over the quilt looked at each other and shrugged. I think you answered first, Hazel. You said something like "Don't ask us! We're no experts!"

It bothered me then, your reticence to pass along what you had learned. I didn't realize that your answer really was an answer, the answer I needed most—that all of us muddle through the best we can and figure things out as we go, and that what we discover along the way is that there's no single right way of doing things, and no guarantees that what worked for you will work for me.

When I was silent long enough, swallowing my questions and slowing my pace, the conversation drifted back to its natural cadences—TV shows and recipes, small town news and medical reports and silences. These conversations held no instant magic, but I see now that each was another quilting thread, connecting hearts as thread joins layers of fabric stitch after stitch.

Hazel (center), the last time I saw her (photo: C Imes)
Now that you're gone, the fabric is torn and so is my heart.

Quilting is slow work, and so are relationships. Your faithfulness over the long haul created something beautiful. We could always count on you to keep the conversation moving. Although you stopped short of giving advice, you gave me something even more important—you genuinely cared about me and my journey. I know because your face would light up when I entered the room. This, too, was a kind of mentoring.

You were there when Eliana cruised around underneath the quilt frame, her bald head a traveling bump. You were there when we sold our things and said our farewells, headed to the Philippines. You were there when we returned, broken and bleeding. You said farewell again when we moved across the country. And you were always there when we came home and I showed up unannounced at sewing. Every time the group was smaller, as friends went on ahead -- Elizabeth, Vesta, Edna, Ruth, Bertha, Alice -- but I could count on you to be there.

How I wish your chair didn't stand empty now! I'm afraid if I take my place around the quilt again my tears will make a mess of it. I didn't realize how much you meant to me until it was too late to tell you.

I'd like to know how many quilts you stitched, how many dollars they fetched for the cause of world mission, how many lives were changed as a result. As meticulous as they are, the minutes of the Women's Missionary Society won't be able to tell me that. But I know that your faithful giving and serving has brought light and life to many others around the world, including mine.

So Thank You, Hazel.
You'll be sorely missed.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

preventing the holocaust: three things that went wrong

Are you like me? Do you have the same perennially nagging questions about WWII: How could the holocaust have been allowed to happen? And how can we prevent it from happening again? If so, read on. I've found a few answers this summer.

However, before I share this list I offer a disclaimer: I am not an expert in WWII. I have not engaged in academic research on these matters. I am, like most of you, simply curious, with a long-standing uneasiness regarding this part of human history. Even now similar narratives are playing out in other parts of the world. Will we look back in 60 years and wonder how we could have stood idly by while whole people groups are slaughtered?

1. Insidious Propaganda

The first reason I encountered for the holocaust (or Shoah) is explored in John Boyne's young adult novel, The Boy in the Striped PyjamasIn my opinion, the movie is even more achingly powerful than the book. You simply must watch it.

Although this is a work of historical fiction, it goes a long way toward answering my questions about the German populace during WWII. In this story, even the Commandant's family, living next door to a concentration camp, are unaware of its inhumane conditions. They don't realize the acrid smoke comes from burning bodies and that their own father is responsible for the daily murder of countless humans. They are shown videos that depict happy Jews, well-fed and grateful for a place to live. For the average German, it was less psychologically taxing to believe the propaganda than to push for answers, especially when those who did so risked personal harm.

2. Incredulity

I encountered another reason for the widespread devastation of the holocaust in Elie Wiesel's Night. This one gave me chills. Wiesel describes how a member of their Jewish community in Poland had been deported to a prison camp, escaped, and returned to warn the community. But nobody believed him. The horrors he described were so unthinkable that the other Jews decided he must have gone crazy. They had plenty of time to escape before they were rounded up, but they stayed put, confident that the war would soon be won and the Nazis would go home to Germany.

Ironically, I finished Wiesel's autobiography of the war years on the very day he died, old and full of years. What a gift he gave us all with his unflinching description of Nazi brutality. What a wonder he survived it! Self-deception can run very, very deep and animate the most egregious behavior imaginable. Let us not forget it.

3. Insufficient Sympathy

The final, nauseating insight is from Chaim Potok, author of My Name is Asher Lev and also of The Chosen, a fantastic novel about Jews in Brooklyn in the 1950's. He explains, "There had been public meetings in England, protests, petitions, letters—the whole machinery of democratic expression had been set in motion to impress upon the British Government the need for action [during WWII]—and not a thing was done. Everyone was sympathetic, but no one was sympathetic enough. The British let some few Jews in, and then closed their doors. America hadn't cared enough, either. No one had cared enough. The world closed its doors, and six million Jews were slaughtered. What a world! What an insane world!" (197, emphasis added)

If Potok is correct, immigration policy played a role in the mass devastation. Jews who had nowhere to go were left vulnerable to Nazi occupation, deportation, and death in a concentration camp.

Closer to home . . .

Are we believing lies about the true status of refugees?
     These are moms and dads with children who are desperate for a safe place to call home, not dangerous criminals.

Are we believing the truth when it is told? Or do we dismiss the stories as highly unlikely?
     Entire villages are being destroyed. Women are being sold as sex slaves to ISIS militants. Entire museums and ancient monuments are being blown to smithereens.

Are we sympathetic enough to do something about it?
"If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them." (James 4:17 NIV)

The solutions are complex because the problems are complex, but let's not turn and look away. These are our brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

a granddaughter of immigrants speaks up

In 1949, my Oma and Opa were among the first European immigrants to fly to the Americas after WWII. They left behind a country ravaged by war, where the land had been raped and pillaged by years of fear and poverty. They determined to put as many miles as possible between themselves and the memory of war. They were not well educated. They were not highly skilled workers. They were young farmers, newly married, who hated farming and wanted to begin a new life. They were not "white"; they were Dutch, and their only ticket to Canada was (ironically) through the sponsorship of a Canadian farmer who gave them work. The little English they spoke was hampered by a thick brogue. They brought little wealth to contribute to the economy. Just two pair of calloused hands and a willingness to try again to build a better life for themselves and the son they would bear.

They looked no different than Germans. I wonder whether their accents ever aroused suspicion among their new neighbors. They had been victims of war brutality, risking life and limb to subvert the German advance, but only a thin border separated them from Nazi headquarters. With the same light skin and big noses, did people wonder? Did all Europeans look the same? After all, they shared a religion with Nazi Germany — Protestant Christianity.

How soon we forget.

My father crossed the Canadian border into the United States to attend Calvin College. He met and married my mother in Grand Rapids, Michigan, beginning life as a U.S. Citizen.

That makes me the granddaughter of immigrants — immigrants who fled a war-torn country to make a new beginning. They followed their married son to Colorado so they could watch me grow up. I was nurtured and raised in a close-knit Denver community whose shared origins defined us (even today, the children of my Dutch cousins and Dutch classmates are dropping off their children at Calvin Camp, the same camp we attended almost 30 years ago, and my other grandparents are living out the remainder of their years in a retirement home populated mostly by people of Dutch descent). My community successfully integrated. No one my age that I know of actually spoke Dutch. We were Americans.

But roll back the clock just a few generations and most of our families were not in the United States.

How grateful I am that my grandparents were allowed to move here — that they were not turned back at the border on the outside chance that they were Nazi sympathizers.

I'd like to extend that opportunity to others fleeing war-torn lands.
Every human being deserves a place to live and raise a family without fear for their safety.
Let's work together to make it happen.
There's a sea of refugees out there who are just as afraid of ISIS as we are.
We can start by opening our hearts to them.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ta-Nehisi Coates: On Being Black in America

Between the World and Me is sweeping across America. When both Time magazine and Christianity Today urged me to read it, I figured I should listen! Coates frames his incisive prose as an extended letter to his teenage son on growing up black in America. Though much has changed since his own childhood, still the black body seems fragile -- dispensable to those who think they are white

Coates is a gifted writer, and his vision is clear. 

He writes, "And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us [as blacks] but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us [i.e., whites], intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do. In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after." (120)

He describes the effect of Black History month, and the emphasis on non-violent resistance as model black behavior — a behavior that to him ensures that white power continues unabated. The only authorized black heroes are the meek: "All those old photographs from the 1960s, all those films I beheld of black people prostrate before clubs and dogs, were not simply shameful, indeed were not shameful at all—they were just true. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world." (146, emphasis added)

He leaves readers with this call to action: "And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. . . . Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all." (151, emphasis added)

Perhaps you think this is overstated. That we really are white, and that whiteness matters. 

I'll admit that until I read Coates' book, it had never occurred to me that I was anything but white. Now I find it strange that I didn't see before what a misleading term it is, a label that has drawn a line between us and them and has ushered me into privilege while others wait outside. I'm ready to move on. Ready to go full color.

Let's be clear. Humanity matters. Every one of us, no matter our skin color, our country of origin, or our religion. And as long as this doesn't translate into equitable treatment, then we must raise our voices and work for a better world.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

so you think you're white

What does that mean exactly?

If you're referring to the color of your skin, let's be honest — "white" is not the most accurate descriptor. White stands at one extreme of the color spectrum, and black at the other. Yet every human being I know falls somewhere in the middle — a rainbow of rich hues: peach and olive and tan and brown, which my set of 24 colored pencils cannot adequately represent. By labeling ourselves "black and white," we polarize, forcing everyone to one side or the other.

White is not a skin color (even for albinos).
White is not an ethnicity.
It's a way of organizing society, and it's so pervasive that it has changed what we think we are seeing.
A month ago this had not yet occurred to me.
But I'm over being white.

If it matters to you, I'm an American of Dutch descent. What little skin pigment I have has gathered itself into a thousand freckles on my arms and legs and face, defying categorization.
Above all, I'm human. Made as the image of God.
And so are my brothers and sisters across the pigment spectrum.
Every one of them is his image.

Language matters.
When we assign a label to something we place it in relation to other things.
We say what it is not.
In these challenging times, where emotions run high, let's choose our words carefully.
A word aptly spoken can open up new avenues for dialogue or it can dig trenches and build walls.

From now on, I'm human.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

an open letter to people who think they're white

Dear "White" America,

(That includes me.)

We have two options.

Option 1:

Go ahead, tell yourself you can be silent because "all lives matter."
Keep imagining that this is a fictional problem, created by the media to divide our country and boost ratings.
Excuse yourself from the conversation because Black Lives Matter is not inherently "gospel centered."
Assume that this is someone else's problem because you have no black neighbors and no black friends.

Option 2:

Resolve to understand what others call injustice.
Determine to listen to their cries so you can be part of the solution in some small way.
Decide that you are not content to carry on without friends of other colors.
Develop empathy by trying on other shoes.

Above all, look deeply into your own soul and be brutally honest — racism starts with me. It starts when I cross the street to avoid close proximity with someone who is not part of my "tribe." It starts when I value the lives lost in Paris more than the lives lost in South Sudan or Syria or New Orleans. It starts when I assume that someone has nothing to offer me that I need, simply because our skin tones don't match.

It's time to wake up.
It's time to listen to the urgent cries of our brothers and sisters.
It's time to recognize that there is no such thing as "white." White is no more an ethnicity than yellow or red or blue. "Caucasian" is no more scientifically defensible than "Aryan." Both terms (now abandoned by anthropologists) served Hitler's eugenics project nicely to separate "us" from "them," while a simple DNA test would reveal our common humanity. We are cousins, each created as God's image.

American history should make all of us wary of our own rationalizations and good intentions. Abolishing slavery, as important as that was, did little to rectify the disparaging attitudes toward those of African descent. When those in power decide that the exploitation of another human being is essential to the smooth operation of our economy, that certain people are better suited to menial labor and that they aren't worth educating, then it will take generations to undo the damage. Generations. The damage is still not undone.

When we consistently define people as either "white," "black," "Asian," "Muslim," or "Mexican," we betray our cultural blindness. When we perpetuate stereotypes rather than cultivate sensitivity, we compound the problem. When we speak of immigration as "infiltration" and refugees as dangerous, we foster the very fear that creates the hostile environment in which extremism takes root among the isolated and victimized. Let me say it plainly. Our extremism fosters theirs.

Can we move beyond this?
Let's not turn our backs now, when we're needed most, and assume there's nothing we can do about it.
We can all do something.
We can start by caring.

By reading this far, you've shown that you're open to option 2.
May I suggest a next step?

Read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. I suspect it is the Uncle Tom's Cabin of our generation — the book that will awaken all of us who think we're white (he calls us "the Dreamers") to the plight of blacks in America. He didn't write it for us. He wrote it for his son. But if we want to be part of the solution, we need to listen in, too.

I'm no expert on dissolving racial tension or resolving the immigration crisis, but from my vantage point both are heart issues that can no longer be ignored.

A Fellow "White" American

Monday, July 4, 2016

perspective on cape perpetua

We had clamored over the volcanic rocks along with many others, their skin tones a wide range of hues and their languages sharply distinct — Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Japanese. Surely others, too. We were united in our fascination with the coastline and our awe as the pounding surf was thrown back by the sharp black rocks on which we stood.

Cape Perpetua (Phtoto: C Imes)
Every dozen yards or so the water had prevailed, with its persistent pounding, slicing a trench that progressively narrowed into stubborn rock. Here the waves picked up speed with a kind of focused frenzy, hurling themselves at the obsidian walls that taunted and restricted their progress.

The surge, the deep boom, the spray, and then the clatter of droplets, thrown helpless on the solid barrier, only to slide back down and drip into the churning sea.

Innumerable mussels clung fast to the hardened lava, daring the waves to pry them free, depending on the moisture and food delivered with each flailing attempt to carve stone.

Emma on the edge (Photo: C Imes)
We—my family and I, along with at least a dozen others—took our places around a deep bowl, hollowed out by the sea, which rushed to fill it through some unseen tunnel. Again and again the water would flood the enormous bowl and then be sucked out, leaving a gaping chasm encrusted with dripping mussels. Then, just as suddenly it would swell again with seawater, splashing and churning, lapping at the toes of the most foolhardy among us, eliciting gasps and shouts from all. Flush, fill, flush, fill. We watched, awestruck, as the sun slipped toward the horizon.

A few hours in the presence of such raw, unbridled power and my life feels very small indeed.
Cape Perpetua (Photo: C Imes)

Then, like the rapidly receding ocean water, we hurried to retrace our steps and climb the path to our parked car. We had just a few minutes to make it to the top of the cape for a birds' eye view of the sunset. The road wound up and up and up for two full miles, ending at the top of a coastal mountain. We rushed to the edge of the trail to look out across the expanse. I was dumbstruck.

View of the Coastline from Cape Perpetua (Photo: C Imes)
The powerful, churning waves were so far below us now that their pounding produced little more than a whisper. The sharp black rocks that held the waves at bay—merely a fringe for the heaped blanket of coastal mountains that towered above. The endless sea lay quiet and glistening beneath us as the sun slipped at last beyond the horizon.

The lesson in the crashing surf was merely a foretaste. If my life shrank beside the surge of seawater, it nearly vanished from the tip of Cape Perpetua.

And yet—

the incomprehensible mystery—

I, though infinitesimally small, have been invited to contribute, to partner with the One who designed all this.

Cape Perpetua 2016 (Photo: C Imes)
I am to cherish and share this creation with others. Still more—I get to participate in its ongoing development. I get to speak to it, engage with it, and shape it (for good or for ill).

The Creator shares with me the joy of co-creation, the dignity of service, the delight of influence.

And so I write, hoping to capture the brilliancy of a single evening in typed words so you can join me there on the cape, awestruck. You, too, are changing the world.