Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Church -- Why Bother?

Alberta Sunrise (Photo: C Imes)
It's Sunday morning. I sit by the gas fireplace snuggled up in a warm blanket, relishing the quiet. Before long, the rest of the family will stir. The sleepy house will bustle with activity as we get ready to go to church. But why bother? Why not enjoy a leisurely morning at home, letting the kids sleep as long as they will? Why shatter the peace of the weekend by entering a crowded building, exchanging shallow greetings, singing muffled songs, and being told what to think and what to do? Why clutter the rest of the week with small groups and committee meetings and rehearsals?

No doubt you've seen the classic Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart plays the lead character, George Bailey, a decent guy who leads an average life and tries to be a good neighbor to those in his small town of Bedford Falls and prevent the greedy Mr. Potter from gobbling up their land. On one particularly dark day, George faces the loss of everything he's worked to achieve. He wishes he had never been born. That's when the magic happens: an angel appears and accompanies George on a virtual tour of Bedford-Falls-without-George-Bailey. He has the chance to see what life would be like if he did not exist. It's a sobering picture. Bedford Falls is now Pottersville; its main street lined with clubs, its neighborhoods crowded with cheap rental houses, its residents suspicious and snarky.

What if the church, like George Bailey in his suicidal funk, did not exist? What if we could have a George-Bailey-style personal tour of a churchless world? What would we see? What if faith was purely a personal matter and we ceased gathering weekly for worship?

We need to look no further than a recent sociological study for such a tour. In groundbreaking research at the University of North Carolina, Robert Woodberry made the following discovery, under the direction of his doctoral supervisor, Christian Smith:
"Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations." (For the full article in Christianity Today, click here.)
It is one of the great mysteries of the faith how a rag-tag gathering of individuals can have such a transformative effect on the world. But according to Robert Woodberry and his team of researchers, the results are quantifiable.

But what about me? Why not let the church do its thing and opt out myself? My fireplace is warm and cozy. I'm a well-educated, theologically grounded individual. It's unlikely that I'll learn anything new at church this morning. I could crank up the worship tunes at home and sing solo. Sure the church makes a difference for others but that doesn't obligate me to go, right?

Here's the deal: I am not my own, but belong body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ (Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 1). I belong not only to him, but to his means of grace in the world, the church. My absence diminishes what Christ can accomplish in and through the church, while my presence is a tangible means of participation in the kingdom. Ultimately, it's not about "what I get out of it." It's an act of surrender.

St. Barnabas Anglican Church at Sunrise (Photo: C Imes)
According to James K. A. Smith in his recent book, You Are What You Love (Brazos, 2016), this act of surrender has consequences that may be imperceptible now, but add up to something significant. Our habitual acts shape our loves and therefore who we become. Smith says that in order to cultivate virtue we must immerse ourselves in practices that inscribe them in our heart over time. He insists, "counterformative Christian worship doesn't just dispense information; rather, it is a Christ-centered imagination station where we regularly undergo a ritual cleansing of the symbolic universes we absorb elsewhere. Christian worship doesn't just teach us how to think; it teaches us how to love, and it does so by inviting us into the biblical story and implanting that story in our bones" (You Are What You Love, 85).

With this in mind, here are four reasons I choose to keep going to church:

1. Weekly fellowship in a church body orients my loves.

Of course, if I'm not vigilant, it can breed bitterness as well. No church is perfect, and there will always be things that merit complaint. In rare cases, the damage inflicted by a particular local church may even outweigh its benefit. But when I invest weekly in corporate worship with a relatively healthy community, I join with others in declaring where ultimate truth and value lie. Each week my heart is re-calibrated in tiny ways that keep me facing Jesus rather than drifting in another direction.

2. Weekly fellowship in a church body recognizes that following Jesus means joining God's family.

When I signed on as a Christian, it was not a transaction designed primarily to secure my eternal destiny. Becoming a Christian means becoming part of God's family and changing how I live here and now. Spending week after week with these people, sharing this experience, eventually adds up to a network of caring relationships. It doesn't happen overnight, but as we do life together, we lend support to each other on our faith journeys.

3. Weekly fellowship in a church body enables me to participate in God's work of grace in others.

The fact that I show up affirms the value of corporate worship for all those in attendance. It upholds the ministry of my church leaders. My smile and my handshake and my voice lifted in praise manifest the Spirit's presence to others who have come. I am not my own. I am a member of something bigger than myself -- Christ's body on earth.

4. Weekly fellowship in a church body is a means of declaring allegiance to the kingdom of God.

On the outside, the church may not seem like the "going thing." It may seem weak. But the truth is that the church is a visible witness to the unseen reality of God's kingdom. Being present each week testifies to this. It acknowledges that God's invisible kingdom is more substantial and more lasting than the other concrete institutions in my community. It will outlast the postal service, local businesses, schools, and politicians and their offices. My participation ensures this. It testifies to that greater and lasting kingdom.

So, for these and other reasons, I keep going. Whether I feel excited about it or not (and usually I do!), the church is my family, and I cannot be who I am meant to be without it

Friday, November 24, 2017

Practicing Biblical Hebrew the Fun Way

I'm excited to introduce you to a new set of resources from GlossaHouse publishers: The Illustrated Hebrew Bible and The Illustrated Greek Bible.

Each volume includes the unabridged Hebrew or Greek text of Scripture embedded in lively illustrations by Keith Neely. At the bottom of each page is a fresh English translation that follows the word order of the original text as closely as possible so that readers can easily locate a gloss for unfamiliar words.

To date, the published volumes include Genesis, Exodus, Mark, and a single volume that includes the Hebrew short stories of Ruth, Jonah, and Esther.

I'm personally invested in this project, having spent dozens of hours preparing the Exodus volume. It was a tangible way for me to commemorate 6 years working on the Decalogue (a.k.a. Ten Commandments). I believe my GlossaHouse English translation is the first to reflect the natural reading of the Hebrew in Exodus 20:7 that recognizes its metaphorical underpinnings: "You shall not bear the name of YHWH, your God, in vain." For the 200-page justification of this translation, you can pre-order my published dissertation. But in the meantime you can get your hands on this beautiful volume with my English translation for yourself.

These volumes would make fantastic Christmas gifts for the Language nerds in your life. They would also work well for . . .

  • Hebrew or Greek Reading Courses - Professors could require or encourage students to buy these editions to more rapidly increase fluency. Visual cues make reading more natural.
  • Hebrew or Greek Exegesis Courses - Students can opt to use these instead of BHS for class because they include the entire Hebrew or Greek text of Scripture.
  • Individuals wanting to retain biblical languages or increase reading fluency - A page or more a day would be a great way to keep up your languages!
  • Homeschool families - Children studying biblical languages at home will love these books!
  • Jewish families raising their children to read and speak Hebrew and know the Hebrew Bible.
Other volumes currently in production include Judges, Samuel, Job, John, and 1,2,3 John, plus Latin versions of Genesis and Mark. All the copies at the GlossaHouse booth at SBL sold out by the second day, so you'll want to order your copies before they disappear!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Christmas in October

It's mid October, but in a certain corner of Bend, Oregon, it's already Christmas. The whole neighborhood has put up Christmas lights. You may see carolers drop by. The mail carrier has delivered handfuls of Christmas cards. God is totally on board. He even sent snow this weekend.

Did you get the memo?

Chris is dying. Dying soon. And he wanted one last Christmas with his wife and children.

This morning he upped his pain meds in order to make it through the day. He doesn't want to miss the turkey, ham and cornbread stuffing or the sweet potato casserole. So as the train makes loops around the early Christmas tree and the cooks are busy in the kitchen, Chris soaks it all in.

Eat, drink, and be merry, he thinks. For tomorrow . . . 
tomorrow he stops treatment.

After more than a decade of chronic, debilitating migraines, doctors discovered that Chris had an (unrelated) inoperable brain tumor.

While the rest of us gasped at the news and fought back tears, Chris celebrated! His pain would soon be over. He would soon see his Savior! His joy welled up to overflowing.

The Chambers Family
It has continued to overflow in the 6 or so months since he announced on Facebook that he was dying. Social media has its down sides, but this is not one of them. A whole community has gathered around as Chris has faced death wide open, inviting everyone to walk this journey with him. We've watched in amazement as Chris has reached out to encourage every one of us - extending words of blessing, wisdom, and grace. His humor and transparency and his deep care for Sarah and the children have been unwavering.

Since doctors are no longer worried about Chris developing a drug addiction, they've given him whatever he's needed to kill the pain. So ironically, since he found out he was dying, he's been able to live a much fuller and richer life -- church services, his kids' sporting events, Facebook, even Disneyland! But in the past month it became clear he wouldn't make it until Christmas.

So Christmas came early in Bend.

This morning I worshiped at an Anglican church. Gazing at a stained glass window of Joseph, Mary, and the Christ Child, I thought about Chris and Sarah's early Christmas. At Christmas the Word became flesh.


Flesh that is subject to pain and disease, migraines, and even brain tumors. As Chris feels his own flesh wasting away, how appropriate to celebrate the moment when God took on human weakness.  Yes, Chris' body will return to the dust, but because Jesus conquered death, he can count on a resurrection body. We do not anticipate a disembodied bliss. Jesus ushered in the new creation, in which we can experience the fullness of life that God intended forever, in our resurrected bodies.

And so in the mix of powerful emotions on this early Christmas Day, we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. This is not the grief of despair, but a grief laced with resurrection anticipation.

Thank you, Chris. In your dying you have showed us how to live.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Blueberries and Trust

We bought our house in Oregon sight unseen back in 2014. Crazy, I know. Except that we had family members kind enough to comb the area, take loads of pictures, talk to neighbors, and smell each room. They helped us make an excellent choice. And we had a good God who had prepared the way.

When our moving truck arrived I was delighted to discover three blueberry bushes in the front yard, planted years earlier, laden with ripening fruit. Within a couple of weeks, I was picking 3 cups of blueberries each morning, then 4, then 7. I counted over a hundred cups of berries that summer -- enough for a whole winter's worth of smoothies.

No thorns, no sweat, no planting or tending. Berries just ready for us to eat.

As I picked in the early morning light, the words of Deuteronomy 6 often floated through my mind:
10 When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, 11 houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, 12 be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
We were not the first to experience God's good provision. Israel's bounty came with a warning -- "don't forget who provided all this!" So here I am remembering. To me the blueberries were a tangible (and tastable!) daily refresher on God's goodness. I didn't even know I wanted blueberries, but here they were, and I was grateful.

This summer we're eating blueberries like crazy. We can't take them over the border with us to Canada, so we're relishing juicy handfuls and sharing them with friends. And as if God wanted to end this story with an exclamation mark, he provided a garden-watering job for Ana this month that has been mouth-watering for the rest of us -- a garden brimming with raspberries and blackberries that would rot if we didn't eat them. And so we have. Handfuls of the most delicious berries we've ever eaten.

Our God is so good. And we can trust him to go before us and prepare the way. He provided berries in Oregon City. He'll provide abundantly in Three Hills, too. God is like that.

Before we moved to Oregon, the kids would often ask, "Will our new house have a ____?" or "Can we buy a house with _____?" In my thoughtful moments, I answered, "We'll see what God provides!" As it turned out, he granted room to flourish and recover from the intensity of PhD studies, another amazing set of neighbors, and berries. Lots and lots of berries. The same God who provided blueberries arranged for my Canadian citizenship 40 years before anyone knew I would need it. That's impressive.

The LORD promises neither a rose garden nor a blueberry bush, but he does promise to be with us always. Ultimately, that's all we need.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Trust Without Borders

Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders. 
Let me walk upon the water wherever you would call me. 
(Hillsong, "Oceans")

If your church is like ours, you've sung this song innumerable times. Did you mean it? How did God answer your prayer?

He has answered ours in a very surprising way.

In March we announced to our financial supporters that we were taking a step of faith by resigning from SIM, the mission we've served with since 2002. After 15 wonderful years of ministry with SIM, we felt God moving us into full-time teaching ministry. We hoped that a full-time job would materialize for me, but even if it didn't, we knew what we were called to do: Danny would focus on keeping our household running smoothly so that I could devote my energy to teaching. Lots of people step out in faith to become missionaries; our step of faith meant no longer raising financial support. Danny moved down to part-time with SIM while we explored possibilities.

We knew what we wanted -- to stay planted in Oregon and keep teaching (preferably with a full-time salary), to keep investing in these students and these relationships. But when no doors opened in Oregon for a full-time job, we began checking job postings in other locations. We knew this year could be a roller-coaster. Most schools post academic jobs around the beginning of the fall semester to begin the following academic year. That makes for a long season of uncertainty about what's next. How much energy would we spend imagining life in different locations, waiting for an interview?

But God had a surprise in store.

The Maxwell Center, Prairie's Main Administration Bldg
At the tail end of May, when hope in Oregon had dried up and we were buckling in for the long roller-coaster ahead, a job was posted at Prairie College in Three Hills, Alberta. Their need was urgent. They wanted to have an Old Testament professor in place by July 1st. Gulp.

They say that if you're the least bit open to taking a job, you should apply for it. I remembered having a good impression of Prairie when I was in high school, looking for a college. It's a small school well off the beaten trail with a long history of sending missionaries all over the world. Crazy as it sounded, I applied.

I figured there was little chance of an American being hired. Canadians would be given priority. But applying was a matter of due diligence. The up side was that there would be no long roller coaster with this one.

The next couple of weeks were a flurry of research. When I emerged less than 2 weeks later as the top candidate for the position, we felt the weight of the decision. We wanted to go in with our eyes wide open. This would be a major transition for the entire family -- not something to be taken lightly.

We scrambled to talk with mentors, read about the school, and explore the area online. I made a long list of questions and concerns. Danny started working on a budget. And we prayed. If we said 'yes,' we would be crossing an international border, with a complicated and expensive immigration process ahead.

Danny and Carmen, Alberta Bound
In late June, Danny and I flew up to Calgary where we were greeted by a friendly colleague and a vibrant landscape of rolling green prairie with a stunning sunset. During the 75-minute drive to Three Hills, we started in on our long list of questions. We had a number of concerns about the job, and we had asked friends to pray for confirmation and clarity. Over the next 48 hours, we were surprised as our concerns melted away one by one. We loved the little town of Three Hills. The houses were nicer. The schools were stronger. The area was more beautiful. The salary was higher than we thought. My course load was less than we thought. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the faculty, staff, and students on campus. In the end, we wanted the job.

Imagine my surprise to discover that God had been making arrangements for this job since birth.

Scenic View not far from Three Hills
On our final morning there, I received a text from my Dad that still floors me whenever I think of it. He was born in Canada, which I knew, but none of us had ever wondered what this meant for me and my brother. I assumed that he became a US citizen when he married my mom and that his Canadian citizenship was a thing of the past by the time I was born. But it wasn't. He waited until I was four years old to become a US Citizen. Chances are high that he is still a dual citizen, though he didn't realize it then. And the clincher: it's almost certain that my brother and I are dual citizens. We were born outside Canada to a Canadian citizen. That's all it takes. In fact, my children are likely dual citizens as well, since they were born to a dual citizen prior to 2009 (when the laws about the second generation changed).

Carmen with Mark (President) and Elaine (CFO) Maxwell
This will make the process of immigrating to Canada far less complicated and expensive. We simply need to pay a fee to have our records checked and a certificate issued that proves our citizenship.

When my official job offer came, there was another surprise -- a part-time job for Danny that fits his skill set beautifully.

So we said "yes"!  

We're in the throes of packing, selling our house, writing syllabi for fall classes, ordering passports for the kids, and saying our goodbyes.

Parable Place, where Carmen's Torah class will meet
Our God is full of surprises. We didn't expect to cross an international border again, but we're eager to see what God has in store for us in Canada. As I said in my sample lecture at Prairie, God has lessons to teach us that can only be learned in a state of dislocation. No doubt we'll have challenges ahead. But we're confident that the same God who has called us out upon the waters will be right there with us.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Why We Need Latin Americans to Help Us Understand the Bible

I'm beginning to see the Bible with new eyes.

It began with a syllabus. Increased ethnic diversity at both of the universities where I teach has made me more conscious of how "white" and Western my assigned readings have been. With the help of my beautifully diverse Facebook community, I've made the effort to discover books written by Africans, Asians, and Latinos. Armed with a list of friend-approved favorites, I ordered copies of a half dozen or more.

I want to tell you about two favorites. Both are from Latin America. Both are slim, inexpensive, and accessible. Both are rocking my world.

Justo Gonzalez is known for his work as a church historian. But in Santa Biblia, he offers us a glimpse of what it's like to read the Bible through Hispanic eyes. Some of you may object: "We should be reading the Bible for what it says, not for what we bring to it. Our ethnicity doesn't change what the text means."

Agreed. But our social location can prevent us from seeing what is there. We make assumptions about the situations the Scriptures address because we see the world from a particular vantage point—say, white, middle-class, suburban American—unaware of the authors' context and concerns. We have blinders on.

Old Testament Israelites and New Testament Christians have far more in common with the average Latino, African, or Asian than they do with wealthy Americans. That's one reason the perspective of these communities is so valuable. They are a bridge.

Gonzalez is not engaged in a special hermeneutic, as far as I can tell. He is simply reading the Scriptures with his community and noticing what it says. But because of his life experience, he notices things I miss. In some cases, his observations simply add insight. In other cases, he turns my interpretation on its head.

Here's an example from his first chapter, focusing on marginality. Gonzalez takes us to Luke 4, where Jesus gives his inaugural sermon in Nazareth, quoting Isaiah 61. At first, Jesus' listeners are pleased (v. 21–22). Gonzalez notes,
"But Jesus suddenly changed his tune—or at least, it would seem so from the point of view of his audience. Until then he had said that they were at the very center of things. The Scripture was being fulfilled right there, 'in your hearing.' Now he tells him to expect no special privileges. He is not about to do in his hometown the things he did at Capernaum." (Gonzalez, 43)
Jesus brings up two Old Testament examples, Elijah and Elisha. Both prophets went to those at the margins, to non-Israelites—a Phoenician and a Syrian, in fact—to work their miracles. The mood in the room radically shifts. Gonzalez explains,
"This was no longer a message about how they were at the very center of things, seeing the Scripture fulfilled before their eyes. This was rather a warning that they should expect no privileges, for God often works at the margins rather than the center. No wonder they tried to hurl him off a cliff!" (Gonzalez, 43)
Imagine if Jesus appeared in your church this Sunday, announcing that God's kingdom had arrived, and that he was here to make all things as they should be. Great, right? But what if he told you his first plan of action was to welcome exponentially more Syrian and Lebanese refugees, to help them set up shop in your neighborhood, and to live among them? How would you feel then?

We tend to read Scripture as though it is God's good news to us. But in the case of Luke 4, the good news indicts those who prefer to keep all the kingdom benefits for themselves. I never noticed this until Gonzalez showed me.

In her book, The Scandalous Message of James, Elsa Tamez brings a similar perspective, but instead of offering examples from various places in Scripture, she works her way carefully through the book of James.

James is a practical book, addressing matters of wealth and poverty, among other things. Tamez explains how a Latin American reading of the book is different:
"For James the oppressors are the rich (plousioi). He does not hesitate to point them out as such. His antipathy toward them and his sympathy with the poor is undeniable. Interestingly enough, many of the commentaries on James dedicate long pages to the rich, thus consciously or unconsciously attempting to relativize this contrasting picture that James paints." 
"This great concentration on the rich is to be expected: on the one hand, many biblical commentaries from Europe and the United States are written in situations where there are many rich people in the churches. How does one tell these members that according to James there is no room for them in the church? We should note that many of the points made in these commentaries are accurate enough; what is striking is simply the angle of the perspective and the special concern for the rich. A Latin American reading of the epistle, on the other hand, fixes its gaze on the oppressed and dedicates long pages to them, their sufferings, complaints, oppression, hope, and praxis." (Tamez, 21, emphasis added)
By now it should be obvious why these books will not just be important for students of color, but for all of us in the classroom. Reading outside our tradition overcomes myopia.

I've heard it said (I don't remember where) that the Bible is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. Reading the Bible with people from other cultural and socio-economic backgrounds reinvigorates the Bible's message and sharpens its critique of our own complacency.

This won't be easy, but our brothers and sisters from Latin America stand ready to help. Together we can learn more, love more, and become more. Are we willing to listen?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Under Our Noses

We were in the mood to explore. Up for something new. Felt like we needed to get "out." But where?

Falls in Downtown Oregon City
(Photo: C Imes)
Then I had an idea. I doubted it would be anything dramatic, but there was a waterfall nearby that we'd only passed by and never seen up close.

We've lived in our small, historic town on the Willamette River nearly three years now. This waterfall was right smack dab in the downtown area. We pass it multiple times each week. It's about time.

I tried to make it a secret adventure but our resident teenager and pre-teen insisted on knowing where we were going. I told them. Their response: "Seriously?" They opted out, so Danny, Easton and I piled in the car. (This post is my "I told you so!")

Oregon City 7th Street Elevator
(photo: C Imes)
Hardly more than five minutes from home, we parked and walked a half block to the top of the stone stairs. Our unique community has an elevator that doubles as a public street linking upper downtown to lower downtown. But it was closed for the evening, so we took the stairs. And that's where I wanted to be anyway, because I had never climbed them. I didn't realize that the waterfall went right beneath them. What a pretty spot! Leafy green trees created a tunnel of shade for our descent.

Taking the Stairs in Oregon City
(photo: C Imes)
In the mood to meander, we headed past shops and restaurants and across the highway to the edge of the Willamette River to see what could be seen. We've driven by that spot hundreds of times in three years. Other than a few fishing boats and kayaks, we had never noticed anything worth writing home about. But we were in for such a surprise!

Our Surprise Visitor: A Sea Lion! (photo: C Imes)
We stared at the water, foam still swirling from the Willamette Falls. Danny noticed the river seemed almost alive in places. Then suddenly the surface broke—two sea lions! We're more than an hour drive from the coast. How can this be? But it was.

I-205 Bridge over the Willamette
(photo: C Imes)

We watched the sea lions for quite some time, following one fellow as he lazed his way down the river, poking his head up for air now and then. (It turns out the local fishermen are deeply concerned. There are at least 30 sea lions this year, and they're eating too many salmon!)

West Linn-Oregon City Bridge
(photo: C Imes)
By the time we headed back to the stairs and up to the car, I was all the more convinced: You never know what you'll discover if you slow down. Linger longer. Park and walk. Take it all in.

There's a whole lot of life happening right under our noses.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Life After Heaven

I've written about heaven before, saying that we typically get it wrong, that it's not what you think. So what am I to make of a man who claims to have been there and back again? How credible do I find his story?

Paul Pastor, writer and fellow alum of Multnomah University, saw my blog post on heaven and asked me to read this story and blog about it, too. At first, Paul was also a skeptic. But Steven Musick had a story to tell and needed help telling it. After Paul met Steven and heard his story, he was convinced that something was different about this heaven-and-back experience. Together they wrote this book. 

Life After Heaven: How My Time in Heaven Can Transform Your Life on Earth is an amazing story, but there's nothing flashy or sensational about the way Musick tells it. Instead, he invites us to see how God has made a difference in his day-to-day life by giving him a glimpse of what comes next. He relates his difficult childhood, early successes, and the unexpected illness that sent him on ahead.

"This Place must be heaven," he writes of what happened when he died. "This Place—heaven—is physical, real. In fact, it's more physical and real than the world I have known. It's not an ethereal, disembodied state, as some people might think. Senses, all my senses, are brilliant and deep. There is weight. There is movement. My body feels an overwhelming sense of freedom. It is wonderful. Totally free." (40)

After a brush with death and 5 weeks in a coma, Jesus sends him back and Musick wakes up.

He is crushed. After experiencing heaven, Steven's longing to be with Jesus again is almost debilitating at first. As he explains, "Heaven is all you want once you've tasted it" (155). He faces an incredibly painful recovery and over a decade of limited activity because his lungs were deeply scarred by his illness.

I don't want to spoil Musick's story by telling you what happens next, but through it he discovers that God is at work in profound ways right here on earth. Musick begins to realize that heaven is not as far away as we might think, and that we can experience it here and now if we're sensitive to what God is doing. He tells one story after another of "bubbles," moments when the kingdom of God shows up on earth, enveloping, exhilarating, fragile, and momentary.

Steven is honest about his doubts, his unanswered prayers, and his awkward moments. He takes no credit for his frequent encounters with kingdom of God. He offers no formula for guaranteeing divine presence. But he wants to awaken our sense of anticipation: "There's more that we should be experiencing in the here and now. Our expectations are far too low. Heaven is much closer than we think." (176)

It's been 40 years since Musick visited heaven. Why tell his story now? He wants it to make a difference in our lives the way it has in his. 

"Do we all need to have a near-death experience to overcome the fear of giving God the totality of our lives, time, and resources? To give him our fears of loss? of suffering? of death?" (166) Musick hopes not. He aims to fill us with anticipation about what awaits us after death so that we're unafraid to embrace the fullness of life here. 

Life After Heaven won't hit the bestseller lists. It's not sensational enough. The story is not exactly gripping. But Musick doesn't want it to be. It reads like a conversation over breakfast, a gentle nudge to look deeper, to long for more, and to be available to participate in the kingdom of heaven here and now. 

That's what I like best about this book. It unveils the intersection between heaven and earth and gives us a taste of the vibrancy and healing of the presence of Jesus that we can begin to experience right now. Call it what you will—heaven, the kingdom of God, eternity, the new creation—we have a lot in store for us! 

When Jesus travels around Palestine preaching, he isn't telling people the good news about what awaits them after death. He doesn't preach "heaven." He claims that the kingdom of God is near. He offers glimpses of that kingdom by healing people, casting out demons, telling stories, rebuking wickedness. His victories over the kingdom of darkness are tangible, earthy, working their way into the nitty gritties of life—bleeding, disease, conflict, ambition, death. He doesn't primarily show people how to die well, he shows them how to live well.

And that's exactly Musick's message. If you're curious, read his story for yourself!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Confronting Modern Day Slavery—closer than you think

The music was loud enough that I could feel the bass pulsing through the floor. The vocalists were captivated, joy flooding their faces. The musicians were in sync. The environment was perfect. A young worship leader, flown in from Germany, stood at the microphone with his guitar. He meant business. The room was full—college students crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, faculty, guest missionaries. It was a recipe for revival. We were standing, singing our hearts out. Some hands were raised. Tastefully-designed slides gave us the lyrics. He who the son has set free is free indeed. 

This was not where I expected to confront modern day slavery. Not here in the Pacific Northwest. Not at a Christian University. But there he was—a real slave—at the end of the row directly in front of me. He was standing along with everyone else . . . but his eyes were captive to his phone. If he had been texting, I could have understood. Relationships are important to him. Maybe he's dealing with a family crisis. But that was not the case. He was playing a game. I cringe just typing those words. I could see the handcuffs cutting into his flesh.

A few times he turned off the screen and slipped the phone into his pocket. But within 60 seconds it was out again, and he was back into his game.

I was baffled. He wasn't sitting in the back row, wasn't making any effort to hide his addiction. He was sitting on the inside aisle in full view of everyone, including this professor.

And he was not alone. At one point everyone in my row and all 8 guys in the row in front of me were on their phones. At the same time the guys behind me were snickering. I looked out across the auditorium. Those in my row seemed to be especially distracted, but I could see phones out all over the room.

During the skit.
During announcements.
During worship.
During the main message.

I wanted to stand up and cry out. I wanted to interrupt our speaker and ask for the microphone. I wanted to say Here, let me hold that for you so you don't miss out. Don't you see you are enslaved? Don't you see that you have lost the art of being human? Lost the ability to be truly present? You are going to need these skills as an employee, as a husband, as a father, as a leader, as a friend.

How did we get here? How did this tiny computer manage to become the only thing that matters? The only thing alluring enough to capture our attention? Why have we let it fragment our focus into smaller and smaller pieces until we can no longer remember what it means to sit in silence and listen? When is the last time we have sat across from someone and looked into their eyes?

From time to time students come to see me. They sit in my office and bring their toughest questions and doubts out into the light—How could a good God allow this? Why doesn't God answer when I pray? How can I be sure what I'm supposed to do with my life? The Bible makes me angry, too angry to pray. I'm having an existential crisis. I'm struggling to keep up. This is all really new to me, so I might need some extra help. These are not the students who scare me. These students are my treasure—the ones who fill my heart with hope for this generation. These students are engaging life with eyes wide open. Their yearning for answers is their sure path to success.

It's the numb ones who scare me. Those who cross campus with faces illuminated by the eerie light of their screens. It's blinding them to the chains that entangle and weigh them down. They are tired. They feel pulled in so many directions. They never have enough sleep. Never enough time to get everything done. And they don't realize that they have willingly surrendered to this life of bondage. They don't even remember what it's like to be free.

Photo credit: John Blanding for the Boston Globe
Do you remember?
Do you remember family dinners filled with conversation?
Do you remember drives in the country soaking in the view?
Do you remember watching something incredible live, without trying to capture it so you could update your status?
Do you remember feeling challenged by a live speaker?
Do you remember meeting someone in line?

Don't misunderstand me. I have a smartphone, too, and I love social media. But at some point it ceases to be a tool and becomes a slave master.

Ironically, the speaker earlier this week, AJ Swoboda, had given us a powerful challenge. We need to care for creation, he said, because creation is the most effective argument for the existence of God. To look up and see the stars far from the city lights inspires awe. To hike above the treeline puts everything in perspective. If we fail to care for this planet, we will lose the most powerful evangelistic witness we have.

And if we don't look up, we'll miss it, too.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Adventures in Prayer . . . and the Barriers that Hold Us Back

It's a special joy to walk with students as they wrestle with how to relate to God. Sometimes questions come up in class discussion. Other times its a conversation with a student in my office. This semester I get to "look over their shoulders" by reading student reflections on their small group meetings. Students are responding eagerly to these meetings, where they meet to talk about their spiritual lives with one another, using A Spiritual Formation Workbook.

Why is God not answering me when I cry out to him?
This week I tried praying 5 minutes a day. I'm embarrassed about how hard this was for me!
What is the point of fasting?
I'm so angry at God right now. How can I pray?
How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?
If God is good, why wouldn't he make it easier to communicate with him?

I'm realizing that one of the biggest barriers to prayer is the idea that we need to pray a certain way or with a certain attitude. We so easily lose sight of the invitation we have to come into God's presence just as we are. This week I encouraged one student to go for a hike in the woods and rant at God, telling him how angry he is. There's no way to get past the anger until it's expressed. I told another student that she doesn't need to swallow her disappointments so that she can come to God cheerfully. God wants us to voice those disappointments in his presence. I had the privilege of praying with another student for physical healing.

The other major barrier to prayer is busyness. We don't pray because every moment is filled with sensory input of other kinds – music, headlines, newsfeeds, conversation, podcasts, Netflix, homework. We've lost the art of sitting in stillness. One student plans to try a social media fast. Another practiced sitting quietly for 5 minutes each day this week. Inspired by the story of Frank Laubach, others are intrigued by the idea of inviting God into every moment of their day. Is that even possible? And if so, what would be the benefit?

A third barrier is unfamiliarity. We can't expect to become spiritual giants overnight. Spiritual growth takes time, and spiritual disciplines take practice. I'm praying that God would reward each student's efforts to connect with him and would stir their hunger for more.

Prayer is like the old game "Othello" — it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master. Prayer is nothing more and nothing less than a conversation with God. That seems simple enough. But creating space for prayer, learning to truly open up in prayer, exploring new ways of praying, discerning God's voice, coming to love prayer . . . these things take time. It's the adventure of a lifetime!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Leaning In: One Year Later

Just over one year ago, I decided to read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Now I'm looking back and taking stock of what I've learned. I reworked last year's blog post into an updated article for The Well, published today on InterVarsity's blog for Women in the Academy and Professions. 
. . . By the time I got my dissertation back, dripping with red ink, I was already a month into teaching. I had less than two weeks to cut dozens of pages and tighten my arguments. During those two weeks I didn’t use impressive PowerPoints in class, didn’t grade anything, and didn’t meet with students outside of class or attend any special events on campus. But then my defense draft was submitted, and my teaching rhythm returned to normal.
And I learned that Sheryl Sandberg was right. I had almost said no because it didn’t seem convenient or practical, because I might end up too busy. But saying yes worked out fine. My students survived, even though they weren’t the center of my universe for a couple of weeks in February. Most importantly, I finished my degree and finished out the spring semester, gaining a wealth of practical experience in the process.
You can find the whole article here.  I hope my journey inspires you to lean in, too!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Hidden Figures: America's Pathway to Greatness

Imagine if your best work went unnoticed.
Imagine if you wrote a report but someone else's name went on the cover.
Imagine if that same someone else was paid a great deal more than you were.
Imagine if they resented your presence in the office.
Imagine if everyone else in the office shared that opinion and made it obvious.
Imagine if you couldn't speak up about it because this was normal.

If you were an African American woman working at NASA in the early 1960s, you would not need any imagination. This would be your life.

Hidden Figures is a movie that will take you into the world of three women who walked in these shoes. Given the segregated times during which these brilliant women lived, I suspect that their experience was widely shared by people of color.

A lot of progress has been made since the 60s, but friends of color tell me that we still have a long ways to go. Assumptions and stereotypes about aptitude, motivation, or immigration status plague these brothers and sisters. Guarded suspicion is more readily extended than friendship.

We are much closer now than we were then to equity and equality, but let's not imagine there is no work left to be done. 2016 made that painfully obvious. Perhaps President Trump's most lasting legacy will be bringing the blatantly racist attitudes that persist in America into the light of public discourse. As troubling as this was, we might as well know the truth about where we are as a nation. Maybe this truth will compel us to seek justice.

The flurry of executive actions in Donald Trump's first week as President underscores the urgent need for private citizens, churches, and non-profit organizations to champion the cause of justice. If in the past we have relied on governmental agencies to ensure a just society, we know now that such an approach is inadequate. This has always been true. But now it's undeniable.

In Soong-Chan Rah's Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Rah urges his readers to cultivate "a personal connection to the corporate sin that has entered our culture." He says, "We must move from 'let's just get over it' to 'how do I personally continue to perpetuate systems of privilege?' Justice must move from the third person to the first person, from the abstract to the personal" (125–26). This is such timely advice.

Just this morning I heard about an African American PhD student in Chicago who was pulled over in 2015 and accosted harshly by police for suspected auto theft in spite of his respectful compliance with law enforcement officers. Friends, the man was beaten for driving his own car. Examples like these can be readily multiplied. As long as we live in a world where this can happen, we cannot rest.

The only great America will be the America where every human being — no matter their race or gender — is treated with dignity, compensated fairly, given credit for their work, and given a voice and a place at the table. If this is the America we want, we need to create it. Let's get to work!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

a prayer companion for the next four years

Evangelicals have found ourselves in an awkward place this election season — heavily courted and yet publicly disdained. One day wooed, the next betrayed. There has been no easy way to navigate political conversations with friends and neighbors as emotions run deep and issues flare. Choosing how to vote created a conundrum for many people. Which policies are most compatible with Christian faith? Which issues should be highest priority—the economy? immigration? the unborn? race relations? How much should a candidate's personal beliefs (or lack thereof) and character (or lack thereof) play into our decision?

Some Evangelicals concluded that the only Christian vote was a Republican vote because it had the best chance of overturning Roe vs. Wade or was most likely to preserve the freedoms enjoyed by Christian institutions. Other Evangelicals felt passionately that the Democratic candidate best embodied the biblical ideals of caring for the poor and the oppressed. Still others felt that neither candidate had the personal character necessary to occupy the oval office. Some of us voted for a third party candidate. Others abstained in protest.

Wherever you find yourself on that spectrum, if you consider yourself an Evangelical, like it or not the polls have securely linked the president-elect with your vote. That means the world is watching, and you will be blamed for whatever happens next. A change in leadership always brings opportunities and risks. Whether you are concerned about what these next four years may hold or you are celebrating regime change, I've got a book to recommend just for you.

In a world full of pressing needs and deep divisions, this book is a call to prayer and fuel for action. For those whose hearts are heavy, this is one way to transform your burden to focused prayer. For those who are optimistic about the incoming administration, this book will augment your prayers for our new president in ways that consistently reflect God's kingdom priorities.

Offering a quote each week and a Scripture verse for each day of this four-year administration, Praying for Justice functions like a lectionary. As the authors describe it,

The title of this book contains an invitation to pray for justice, but this book contains no overt prayers. Many of the more than fourteen hundred Bible passages contained here are prayers or portions of prayers. To read these texts is to be invited to join them in prayer.  
This book invites us to use each day's verse as a meditation or reflection for that day and each week's quotation as an examination of the ways in which your life images God's redemptive justice in the world. 
This book is also a call to action. Now is not a time for Christians to sit and trust that others will take care of people on the margins of our society. Christians must not content themselves with mere social media activism or personal piety. Christians must act often. Christians must act publicly. Christians must act sacrificially. Christians must act with courage and compassion. Christians must act as if it matters - because it does.
This book was a labor of love by three of my colleagues at George Fox University. Anderson, Steve, and Paula worked like the wind for four weeks straight after election day so that you could have this resource in your hands in time for the inauguration. All the proceeds will be donated to Church World Service, to aid them in their work resettling refugees.  You can order your copy on Amazon.