Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Fool-Proof Guide to the Evangelical Church Calendar

We’re about to ring in the new year, which will prompt a host of new diets, exercise plans, and decisions to bring the family to church (or at least tune in online!). Trying to decide which church to attend can be confusing if you don’t know how to tell one from the other. So here’s a handy-dandy visitor’s guide to your typical neighborhood evangelical church (that would include Baptist, non-denominational, “community” churches, anything with “evangelical” in the title, and pretty much any other church that lacks stained glass windows). 

Photo by John Price on Unsplash

Be encouraged -- being an evangelical is much easier than being Catholic, Anglican, or even Reformed. Our religious calendar is simple, with very few holidays to worry about. We promise not to bother you with obscure holidays such as Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Ascension Day, or Pentecost – whatever those are. For the majority of the year, you can simply check the entryway to Walmart and take your cues from there about any upcoming celebrations. We basically follow the secular calendar, and our décor will shift to match the seasons you already know by heart – winter, spring, summer, and fall.

So here’s what you need to know:

January 1 – Today’s the day to begin a new Bible read-through. Most evangelicals will burn out in mid-February when they get to Leviticus, but the truly devoted will finish the entire Bible a few days before the end of December.

Lent – This one is totally optional. The start date is rather mysterious, and you won’t hear about it at all in church, but if you follow the hipster Christians on Twitter, they'll let you know when they are signing off for lent and you can follow suit. The main idea is that you give up something you like until Easter (say, chocolate, or at least afternoon chocolate or whichever social media you can survive without). 

Palm Sunday – We recently decided to retire this one because it’s too difficult to corral the preschoolers around the sanctuary while they whack each other in the head with palm branches. You're welcome.

Good Friday – You can expect dim lighting and sad songs about Jesus’ death. But since we wouldn’t want anyone to feel depressed, we’ll throw in some upbeat songs at the end about how Jesus rose from the dead. You are guaranteed to leave encouraged.

Easter – This is when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Ladies, if you are joining us in person, fancy hats and white shoes are no longer necessary, but if you are ever going to wear a dress, this is the time. Gentlemen, now is your chance to wear a tie without getting snide comments about “dressing up.” Kids can look forward to an Easter Egg Hunt in Sunday School.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – These are not in the Bible, but we are all about family, so we’ll hand out flowers to the moms and snack mix to the dads. If you don’t fit easily in either category, feel free to skip these Sundays.

Summer – Summer is the youth group's time to party. Bible studies are replaced by bonfires and barbecues. Ambitious churches will throw in a two-week mission trip to Mexico. Sunday sermons will be stand-alone, rather than part of a series, so that you can easily go on vacation without missing anything. Please make sure you’re in town for Vacation Bible School, because we’ll need all the help we can get herding kids from one station to another where they can eat Bible-inspired snacks and make crafts to clutter your refrigerator. There’s also likely to be an outdoor baptism service at a nearby lake, river, or pool.

In early July you can expect to see our national flag on stage, and the worship team will feature patriotic songs. This will ensure that the lines between patriotism and piety are sufficiently blurred so that you will never forget that God loves our country the most. 

September – Back-to-school Bible studies will start up again. Some of these will be on Zoom this year. If you are a working mom, you might be out of luck (no evening meetings for women), and if you’re a single dad or dual-career family, you’ll have to find your own childcare.

October - Don’t forget pastor appreciation month! You may give online or in person. On the 31st, since we’re committed to engaging with our community, we will sponsor a “harvest party” or “trunk or treat” for the neighborhood. We don’t want anyone to feel weird (like we’re “religious” or anything), so we’ll decorate with spider webs and skeletons and have friendly witches hand out candy. 

November – A few weeks prior to the national election we’ll provide voters’ guides so that you don’t have to think too deeply about politics. Someone else has done the dirty work, so you can easily choose the candidates who side with your pastor on hot-button issues.

Thanksgiving – Thanksgiving is pretty low key. We won’t hold a church service so that you can spend your day preparing your big meal and watching football. You can easily redeem this holiday by reading Psalm 100 and saying what you are thankful for before you stuff yourself.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash
Advent – Beginning the last Sunday in November, serious evangelicals begin reading a daily Christmas-themed devotional. At the very least, you should buy one of those cardboard calendars at Walmart with a little chocolate for each day until Christmas. To avoid a family feud, buy one for each child in your home. We’ll decorate the sanctuary with lighted Christmas trees to get everyone in the holiday spirit.

Christmas Eve – We’ll offer several candlelight services to accommodate all the families that show up out of the woodwork. Just to make everyone feel right at home, Santa Claus will likely join the festivities. Please talk with your little ones about fire safety before you come because we’ll be handing them real candles to light during “Silent Night.” You won’t hear much about Mary (that’s a Catholic thing), but we will sing “Mary Did You Know?” (even though she did). 

Christmas Day – Evangelical churches don’t actually hold services on Christmas Day any more because families will be busy opening presents. But don’t worry! Reading Luke 2 before you tear into the pile under the Christmas tree will remind everyone of the reason for the season.

And that’s all there is to it! Didn’t I tell you this would be easy? You have a few days before January 1 to binge read the rest of the Bible so you can finish on time. Next year, you can change things up a bit by using a different Bible read-through plan.

The best thing about being an evangelical is that we won’t require much from you during our services -- no kneeling or responsive reading or awkward confessions or drinking out of a common cup (hello, germs!). If you’re inspired during the music, feel free to raise a hand or two in the air (the chorus is usually a good time to do that). Think of the worship time like a concert and the sermon like a TED talk. We’ll provide the coffee. If you’d rather watch the service from home in your pj’s, you won’t miss much (except childcare). You can send your donation through the church website. 

So glad to have you join us!

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Best Books of 2020

As is my custom, I'm writing to tell you about the most important books I read this year. The only criteria are that I read them in full and found them well written, helpful, and worth sharing. I read 45 books this year, ranging from youth fiction to published dissertations. Many of them were very good! These are the books I hope you will read, too.

Best Books Every Christian Should Read:

These first two are tied for best overall book I read in 2020. Both issue a timely and illuminating message for the church, and both are written in such a way that non-academics will be able to read and appreciate them. I blogged about both of them earlier this year, so I won't repeat myself here, except to say that both of them show us what's in plain sight in the biblical text that the church has often missed.

Stewards of Eden by Sandra Richter weaves solid biblical exposition with current case studies in environmental stewardship. It's a challenging and illuminating book.

Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley demonstrates the tremendous value of reading the Bible with and for the Black church. His book cuts to the heart of issues facing society today and calls us to a faithful, faith-filled response. Reading While Black is the Christianity Today best book of the year 2021 for Beautiful Orthodoxy.

Best Academic Books:

The Liberating Image by J. Richard Middleton is a consistently careful and thought-provoking explication of Scripture. Middleton never feels cliché or shallow, and even where you disagree, you'll find him thought-provoking. I'm grateful for his insight.

Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf came highly recommended by several friends. It is a dense read that took me a few months to finish, but his penetrating analysis was worth the effort. Volf issues a powerful call to self-giving love and charts a path for reconciliation and restoration of relationships.

Best Books for those who Write and Teach:

Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson is a beautiful book about the creative process. Peterson is a songwriter whose music I discovered during quarantine, and fantasy novelist whose stories carried us through this dark year (see below). Although I don't write songs or novels, Adorning the Dark expressed powerfully the challenges and joys of any type of creative work shared with the public (including visual art and writing books of any kind). I loved it.

From Research to Teaching by Michael Kibbe releases in 2021, but I jumped at the chance to read it early and couldn't put it down. It would make the perfect gift for a recent PhD graduate -- seasoned with wisdom and practical help for navigating the transition to teaching. 

Best Books for those who Preach:

A second edition of The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative by Steve Mathewson is releasing in April 2021. Steve is a good writer, but more importantly an able interpreter of biblical narrative who offers practical suggestions for engaging your audience. I expect I'll turn to this again and again, not just for preaching advice, but for illuminating exegesis.

Simplify the Message, Multiply the Impact by Talbot Davis distills his many years of preaching experience into a focused model for sermon preparation. Talbot is an expert at connecting with people where they are. He preaches engaging and clear messages without notes, and he will show you how to do the same. Whether you're preaching to a full house or to a camera lens, Talbot will help you get your audience and get the message across.

Best Fiction:

The Wingfeather Saga 
by Andrew Peterson was a gift in this brutal year. My 12-year-old and I spent long evenings at home listening to Peterson read his stories on YouTube. His brilliant writing is matched by his incredible skill in voicing each character. The stories are full of high adventure but offer deep insight into human character. 

Killing a Messiah by Adam Winn is an engaging work of historical fiction about Jesus' last weeks. He weaves a plot that ushers readers into the political intrigue of first century Palestine. The storyline is complex and believable. A great read to save for Holy Week.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Celebrating YOU!

It's been a year of all years in so many ways. Although I could list the many losses, disappointments, and kicks to the gut, today I'm in the mood to celebrate.

Today Bearing God's Name is one year old and I'm celebrating YOU, the readers who have made this a year to remember!

Bearing God's Name is 1 year old!
As you can see, it's learning to crawl.
So hard to make it sit still!

In the first six weeks on bookstore shelves, I had a chance to speak a handful of times. After the pandemic hit? Months' worth of speaking engagements evaporated off the calendar. Everyone says this was the hardest year of all to launch a book.

But YOU made it amazing!

So many of you have taken the time not only to buy and read the book, but to talk about it with your friends, to recommend it to your pastors and your small groups, to share about it on social media, and to post reviews. You've preached on it and used it in your classes. You've invited me to speak via Zoom to your students and congregations and ministry staff, and you've written to tell me what it has meant to you. I've been blown away by how generous and thoughtful my readers -- including YOU -- have all been. I've gained so many new friends around the globe. What a joy it's been!

In the midst of a pandemic, with so much uncertainty all around, you have used your voices to get the message out that the Old Testament still matters. You've helped Christians around the world re-discover their identity and vocation as the people who bear God's name. Thank you!!

A year later, Bearing God's Name is still hanging out at at the top of the charts. Incredible!

Thanks to you . . .

  • enough copies sold that we're on our 6th printing!
  • over 200 of you left ratings on Goodreads!
  • over 250 of you left reviews on Amazon!
  • Bearing God's Name is repeatedly ranked in the top 10 in Old Testament Bible Study, Christian Ethics, and Bible History and Culture on Amazon. 
Only readers can make these things happen!

I'm also grateful for all the podcasters, bloggers, magazines, and others who have helped get the word out:

  • 25 podcast and radio interviews
  • featured in Christianity Today, Faith TodayBible Study MagazineLibrary JournalBible Today, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological SocietyThemelios, and Servant Magazine
  • Jesus Creed Old Testament Book Award for 2020
  • Finalist for the Biblical Foundations Award in Old Testament from Midwestern Baptist
  • Finalist for the IVP Academic Reader's Choice award (just 2 months after release!)

Authors can write, but it's readers who determine its success. I am profoundly grateful for all of you. You ROCK!

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Pandemic Advent: Restoring Hope

Advent begins tomorrow. 

Usually this weekend marks a transition to the bustle of holiday events -- school parties, work parties, family parties, neighborhood parties, concerts, dramatic productions, travel, shopping. For most of us, the 2020 advent season will be much lower key. Concerts are cancelled. Many stores are closed. Parties are limited or not allowed. Travel is complicated.

Perhaps this year, we will finally catch the spirit of Advent.

As one devotional resource puts it, "Advent is a season of expectant waiting, tapping into the sense we have that all is not well, the longing for the world to be made right again. It's a season for restless hearts and people weary of a broken world who want, with all our being, to know there's more than this." (Seeking God's Face: Praying with the Bible Through the Year, 23)

If ever there was a time when we were collectively aware that all is not well, it's now. We long to break free from the dark clouds of the pandemic that shadow every empty square on the calendar.

This year I had the honor of contributing to an Advent devotional for Christianity Today, along with John Goldingay, Fleming Rutledge, Vincent Bacote, Ken Shigamatsu, Thabiti Anyabwile, Rich Villodas, Marlena Graves, and others. You can access it freely using the links below. Join us as we consider together the HOPE of Jesus' coming and of God's transformative power.

This year, more than ever, we know how much our world needs this.

If your year has been like mine, then you are acutely aware of your own need for transformation. The fallout of disrupted plans and routines this year has exposed places in our hearts where we have clung to the wrong things for security.

At minimum we are tasting the bitter tears of grief mixed with anticipation of Christmas. This year won't be the same. There are empty seats at the table, unfulfilled hopes, lonely hearts, and cancelled plans. May our disappointments turn our collective gaze to the author of hope. In him alone will we find strength for a new year that offers little certainty.

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

May the first coming of our king bolster our hope in his imminent return to make all things new!

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Influence of John H. Walton on Biblical Studies

If you looked at my academic transcript, you might notice that although I studied at Wheaton College, I never officially enrolled in a class with John Walton. But if you concluded from this that he hasn't influenced me, you'd be sorely mistaken. Sitting in my classes or reading what I've written or what I assign my students to read, you'd see that Walton's influence is pervasive. I consider him one of my most influential mentors.

Actually, I did sit in on one class with Walton as a PhD student, his "Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds." That class opened up a whole new world for me--the ancient world of the Bible. Walton modeled for us how to read Scripture well by understanding the ancient context in which it was written. He repeatedly insisted that the Bible was written for us, but not to us. The benefits of access to written Scripture are enormous, but if we think that the Bible addresses us directly, we are bound to misunderstand its claims. 

One way to measure the influence of John Walton is by the work of his students. In August I had the joy of joining a Zoom call to surprise Walton with a Festschrift in his honor. The German term Festschrift means "celebratory writing." In this case, a group of more than 20 former students of Walton who are now biblical and theological scholars themselves contributed essays in his honor. The volume. published by Pickwick, is finally available! It's appropriately titled, For Us, but Not To Us: Essays on Creation, Covenant, and Context in Honor of John H. Walton.

I want to be in the ZOOM where it happens . . . (photo: C Imes)

John was totally surprised. We spent 45 minutes talking about his influence on us as scholars and as people. A few themes emerged. In addition to the ways he trains his students to do rigorous work and his commitment to accessible writing that will benefit the church at large, John is a wonderful mentor and friend. He churns out books faster than I can read them, yet he never seems hurried. He walks slowly and always has time for students. He once agreed to meet with me before 7am to discuss a paper I was writing. He and his wife Kim are famous for having students in their home, and he has a special place in his heart for the children who tag along. Each year he invites former students to have breakfast with him at the SBL annual meeting. He foots the bill and wanders happily from table to table, visiting with us and asking us about our work. 

John Walton thanked us for honoring him. Adam Miglio is the masked man in the background.

I'll never forget the time I encountered "Dr. Walton" in the hallway and he told me it was time to start calling him "John." Although John has never supervised a doctoral student, he has actively and deliberately invested in the next generation of scholars, treating us as colleagues and friends. We hope that our volume shows the fruit of that generous investment.

The title of my essay shows the indebtedness of my thinking to Walton. In the vein of his famous "Lost World" series of books, I've called it “The Lost World of the Exodus: Functional Ontology and the Creation of a Nation.” In it, I argue that Exodus is a creation story -- not so much the material creation of something from nothing, but the bestowal of order and function on the Hebrew people, making them a new nation. Here's a sneak peek: 

It's been almost two years of keeping this secret, so I'm delighted that we can finally share it with the world! Special thanks to Adam Miglio, Caryn Reeder, Kenneth Way, and Joshua Walton for their skilled editorial work, organization, and communication. It was an immense privilege to contribute to this project. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

My Surprise Citizenship Story

If you've read Bearing God's Name, then you've already heard the surprising story of my citizenship. Some readers told me it even made them cry! I also tell my story in the companion videos produced by Seminary Now, and they've given me permission to share the clip with all of you here. 

This is a taste of the content you'd get if you watch the whole series. We recorded videos to go with each chapter of the book. Each video lasts less than 10 minutes and they work with or without the book. Best of all, subscribers get access to all of the great teaching videos at Seminary Now. You can learn from John Walton, Scot McKnight, Brenda Salter McNeil, Esau McCaulley, David Fitch, and many more!

Is your small group looking to level up their learning?
Do you want to stop scrolling and start being intentional about what's feeding your brain?
Seminary Now is a great way to do that. I'd love to know which videos you decide to watch.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Lament's Crucial Role in the Ministry of the Church

In my last post, I discussed three misconceptions about lament. Now I'd like to highlight four reasons why lament is essential to the ministry of the church. I'll be drawing on the excellent work of a Ugandan author, Emmanuel Katongole, catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame. His book, Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, is one of the best on this topic.

Did you know that laments outnumber any other type of psalm in the Bible? This may come as a surprise because most of us rarely hear lament psalms in church. The truth is, they make up 40% of the book of Psalms! (See Katongole, 104)

Not only that. By my count almost 25% of the psalms include "imprecatory" language, which is when the psalmist prays for God to bring harm on his enemies. For reasons I'll share below, I believe that these psalms are for Christians, too. Why can we not get along well without lament? Here are four reasons:

1. God's character is the basis of lament.
As Emmanuel Katongole reminds us, 
"At the heart of Israel's social, political, and religious life is the central conviction and experience of Yahweh as a saving God. Yahweh is not only the creator of the world and sovereign ruler of nations; Israel is God's chosen nation, which, through a covenant relationship, enjoys God's special favor and protection. For biblical Israel, therefore, safety and security are found not in military strength or wealth or technological advantage, but in the covenant relationship with Yahweh. Thus in the moment of crisis, because they believed that God can, should--and indeed, would--do something to save them, they complained, mourned, wept, chanted dirges, and cursed." (Born from Lament103-104)
This point is especially true of imprecatory psalms (the ugly, violent-sounding ones). If we cut out the violent parts of the psalms, we deny part of God’s essential character. YHWH’s self-description in Exodus 34:6-7 highlights divine mercy, but it also says of God: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (NRSV). The God of the Old Testament is YHWH, the covenant-making and redeeming God who rescues and saves, who demonstrates love and who takes sin seriously.

Would we prefer it otherwise? Would we prefer a world where rampant evil goes unchecked? Where corrupt despots get rich by oppressing others? Would we prefer for people to be allowed to destroy each other’s lives and reputations by spreading false rumors about them with impunity? Or are we grateful that God wields his power in loving ways by putting a stop to injustice? 

If we believe that God takes sin seriously, then we can accept the Bible's invitation to pray that he will act to bring the unrepentant to justice. 
2. Jesus modeled lament.
The book of Hebrews tells us that even Jesus lamented. "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission." (Hebrews 5:7)

Jesus' tearful prayers did not disqualify him. He was still "without sin." And here the author of Hebrews says that his lament was evidence of "reverent submission." Remember that on the cross Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" This, too, was a faithful way to pray in the midst of his darkest hour. If Jesus is our model, then lament is an indispensable part of faithful discipleship.
3. Without lament, our worship spaces are less safe.
We live in a world full of brokenness at every level ranging from international to intensely personal. The people walking through our doors (or tuning in) on a Sunday morning are the same people who are enduring hardship throughout their week. If our church services are mostly a pep rally or an exhortation to "trust more," and fail to reckon honestly with brokenness, we essentially send people elsewhere to find solutions to their problems. Introducing lament in corporate worship creates space to be real -- to bring our pain to God and cry out for healing.

When we don't acknowledge pain in church, we get less of God and less of each other. As my friend Amy Oden recently put it, "I find more of God when I am most angry with him." Expressing our true emotions in his presence opens us up to meet him in deeper ways. It also opens us to each other.
Why would we deny this opportunity to our congregations? I can think of one reason why: FEAR. We fear that if we create space for lament, people will be offended or discouraged. But in reality, the opposite happens. By restricting our prayers to praise, we deny people access to the full message of Scripture. We lose people who think that their lives and emotions are too complex for the church. If your congregation is likely to be offended by lament, then they have not embraced the whole counsel of Scripture. Teach them what the Bible says about it. Cultivate a space where people can pray how they feel and in so doing discover that they are not alone.
4. Lament is the foundation of social justice.
The consequences of neglecting lament go beyond our local congregation. Not only will individuals not feel that the church is a safe place to bring their whole selves, but the church will lose its ability to impact the wider culture by addressing societal brokenness. 
Katongole explains, "In the end, the loss of lament signals of loss of passion for social justice. A church that has lost its nerve to lament before God will likely lack the nerve to confront oppression and be prone to support the status quo. But that is also the reason why an attempt to recover the language of lament is about solidarity with those who suffer" (183).
The historic failure of white evangelicals to lament racial injustice unveils the root of our problem--we see racial discrimination as something happening to somebody else and being done by somebody else. By identifying with neither the perpetrators nor the victims, we maintain distance. As long as we are distant we cannot be part of the solution. Unless we see crimes against people of color as crimes against our fellow humans, we excuse ourselves from taking action.  
If we cannot corporately bring to God those problems that overwhelm us, where will we bring them? If we are not comfortable creating space for our brothers and sisters to pray and weep, how can we even begin to work with them to find solutions? If their grief does not become our own, on what basis will we build unity? Where else will we find the resources to address whatever threatens to undo us? The first step in imagining a different kind of future is to grieve together and to grieve deeply over what has been done and what is being done.
If we want to (1) know God, (2) follow Christ, (3) minister to broken people, and (4) make a difference in a broken world, then lament is essential. On its own, lament is not enough. It is not the whole answer. But without it, we lose our grip on the resilient hope of the gospel.


For more on lament, see my interview with Remnant Radio. 
For more on imprecatory prayer, see my blog post for the Political Theology Network.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Announcing . . . Companion Videos for 'Bearing God's Name'

I've been holding in a secret for almost six months (which might be a record for me). I've dropped a few hints, but wasn't allowed to say anything official until now. TODAY is the day I finally get to tell you about it!

Back in January, I was invited to fly to Chicago to film a video series based on my latest book. We filmed the entire series on the campus of Wheaton College (where I got my doctorate) in a single, grace-filled day. It was surreal to return to the very place where I discovered the truths that I share in Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters. It was so meaningful to be on site, rehearsing the content that has captured my attention for almost 10 years, so that I could share it with all of YOU. I'll show you the building where it all happened.

We recorded 10 short videos, one for each chapter of the book. If you're not a reader, these videos will convey the essential content of the book. If you've already read the book, these videos will reinforce the key ideas and help you share them with your small group.

You can check out the trailer here.

As a special bonus, I'll even take you with me to the Marion Wade Center on the campus of Wheaton College, where you'll see the desk on which J. R. R. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings and the wardrobe handmade for C. S. Lewis and his brother by their grandfather. (If you've already read the introduction to Bearing God's Name, you can probably guess how this relates to the book!)

Beginning today, you can access my video series and many others for personal enrichment or to explore with your small group. The project was envisioned and executed by an exciting new initiative hosted at Northern Seminary called Seminary Now.

Seminary Now is a new, on-demand streaming video platform that provides exclusive Bible, theology, and ministry courses from today’s leading teachers, ministry practitioners, and authors.

Like Netflix or Masterclass, subscribers get unlimited access to all courses—available on smart phone, tablet, and TV devices. You can earn also a certificate from Seminary Now by completing a learning track. 

Visit for a free preview of the new course offerings. Here's the best part: when you join, you can not only access my videos, but also every other course on the website. Join today and access exclusive content from yours truly, Scot McKnight, John Walton, Brenda Salter McNeil, Ruth Haley Barton, and many more. At checkout, receive a limited-time 15% discount (pay only $17/month or $153/year) with coupon code TAKE15. Or check out the group pricing for your staff and lay leaders.

This is a fantastic opportunity for an individual, couple, or small group that wants to dig deeper into Scripture and learn from some of today's top thought-leaders.

Please forward this opportunity to others who you think would be interested in this new resource and like and share on social media: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Three Misconceptions about Lament

Things are bad in this world of ours. An awful lot of hard stuff is going on. If there was ever a time to cry, this is it. But many Christians shy away from lament because they believe lament is somehow sub-Christian or perhaps they think it won't do any good. 

I've identified three reasons Christians avoid lament. All three are misconceptions. We'll tackle them one at a time:

(1) Lament shows a lack of faith.

If we really believe that God is good and powerful and that he will win in the end, then we would not need to lament, right? Singer-songwriter Michael Card disagrees. In his book A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, Card says this: 
"Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of belief in God. Despair is the ultimate manifestation of the total denial that He exists." (55)
In other words, if you did not believe in the existence of God, there would be no reason to lament. It would do no good. It's because we do believe in God, and trust him as the only one who is able to make things right that we present our most desperate requests to him.

In fact, the Bible offers many examples of faithful men and women who bring prayers of lament to God. Those prayers made it into our Bibles without condemnation. Some of them were included in the book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. Their presence in Scripture implies that we are invited to pray laments, too.

Michael Card explains it this way: 
"People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that prayers of complaint can still be prayers of faith. They represent the last refusal to let go of the God who may seem to be absent or worse -- uncaring. If this is true, then lament expresses one of the more intimate moments of faith -- not a denial of it. It is supreme honesty before a God whom my faith tells me I can trust. He encourages me to bring everything as an act of worship, my disappointment, frustration, and even my hate. Only lament uncovers this kind of new faith, a biblical faith that better understands God's heart as it is revealed through Jesus Christ." (31)
Lament is not faith-less, it's faith-full.
(2) Lament is the opposite of gratitude. 

How can we lament when the Bible urges us to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18)? Doesn't thankfulness preclude lament? One might think so, but again Scripture shows us that lament and gratitude go hand in hand.

In Psalm 44, the sons of Korah remember with gratitude the way that God has acted on Israel's behalf in the past (vv. 1-8). It's against the backdrop of their gratitude that they can plead with God to rescue them again (vv. 9-25). The character of God expressed in history leads them to trust God's future deliverance:
"Rise up and help us; rescue us because of your unfailing love." (Psalm 44:26)
We need not fear that lament will shut out our gratitude. For reasons I'll explain further below, lament and gratitude actually depend on one another.

(3) Lament will lead to despair. 

Some of us don't want to lament for fear of becoming bitter old souls. We don't want to get stuck. But on the contrary, it is our refusal to lament that leads to bitterness and despair. When we try to carry the grief on our own or manage our own solutions to life's deepest problems, the pressure is too much to bear.

Emmanuel Katongole explains, 
"Pain . . . has the ability to destroy language, to reduce the victim to silence. This silence is a form of powerlessness, a paralyzing form of despair. Therefore, the ability to voice grief, to find words to speak the unspeakable and to name pain, is a form of resistance to the paralyzing silence." (Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, 56)
The pathway to joy requires us to pass through the gateway of lament -- acknowledging that all is not well in the world and that we believe our God is able to do something about it. Until we look our pain and loss directly in the face, we will be unable to let it go. 

Have you seen the Pixar movie "Inside Out"? When it seems like everything has fallen apart, Joy learns an important lesson: the value of Sadness. You can watch a clip here. Joy tries valiantly to cheer up Bing Bong by distracting him, but Sadness holds the key: by acknowledging the pain of Bing Bong's loss and making space to grieve, he is able to move forward and soon they are (literally) back on track.

So let's imagine that I've convinced you that lament is not sub-Christian. You might be wondering what to do next. What if you are just not the "emotional" type? How can you tell if you need to lament? How do you start?

One way to tell that we have unexpressed grief is when we lose our capacity to feel deep joy. I like to think of the spectrum of emotions that we experience as a window. On the left side of the window are emotions that we tend to characterize as negative -- anger, grief, fear --  while on the right-hand side are the emotions we see as positive -- joy, gratitude, delight. 

Photo Credit: Rob Wingate on Unsplash 

Hanging inside our emotional window is a set of old-fashioned drapes. Perhaps you remember the kind. To close the drapes, you pull a looped cord on one side of the window and both drapes gradually close until they meet in the middle. Our emotional life is like this. We cannot block just one side of the window. Closing the left side means closing the right side as well. If we suppress our feelings of grief or anger, we make it impossible to feel gratitude and joy.

I am not a trained counselor, but it's been my experience that if I find it hard to laugh along with others or enjoy a happy gathering, there is likely some unexpressed grief lodged in my soul. We can never recover our joy by imagining away our sorrow. We have to face it. Name it. Pray it. And thereby release it to God. Then we can pull our drapes open and let light back in the room.

That's why I'm so thankful for the book of Psalms. It tutors us in prayer, giving us words when we have none, and modeling the full range of ways to connect with God. If we categorize the psalms into  lament, praise, and other psalms, we find that there are more laments than any other type of psalm. That should tell us something about the life of prayer, and it should give us courage to bring our sorrows to God. 

If you have been feeling numb, you can start by making a list of things that are bothering you. It may be news headlines or it may be personal. Then bring your list to God. Find a psalm that expresses your heart -- maybe Psalm 4 or Psalm 88. Pray those words and add your own. God wants to hear your heart.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Author Interview: Sandra Richter

In this post I'm taking you behind the pages of Stewards of Eden to meet the author, Sandra Richter. Sandy, thanks for taking the time to tell us about your work!

So great to get to interact on this important topic, Carmen. Thank you for the invitation!

When did you first know that you wanted to write this book?

Sandra L. Richter, Author of Stewards of Eden
Hmmm … that is a good question, and one I haven’t answered before. Although my love for God’s creation goes back to before I was even a Christian, the whole business of writing and speaking on this topic in Christian circles just sort of “happened.” As I narrate in the book, the first time I had the privilege of sharing a message of environmental stewardship from a pulpit was 2005 at Asbury Theological Seminary. The response was everything I could have hoped for. And to my surprise, I was asked to publish that message in the Asbury Journal. At the time of publication, I was serving on the Institute of Biblical Research planning committee, and we were casting about for a topic for the following year. I suggested that we do a plenary session on creation care. They said “yes,” if I would be one of the speakers. I was thrilled, but it also meant I had to seriously up my ante—now I needed a message appropriate for an academic conference. Man did I work hard on the research for that presentation. And in the fall of 2008 at the annual meeting … once again the response was everything I could have asked for. Rick Hess, editor of BBR was at the gathering and asked me to publish that presentation. Then there were a slew of speaking engagements—some more enthusiastically received than others. (There was a certain week-long “Holiness Conference” at a not-to-be-named Christian College where I think 17 people total showed up; then there was that walk-out at another not-to-be-named college; and, oh, the conference where I presented on humane animal husbandry in the heart of cattle country in Tulsa--that was a bit awkward!). In each of these my material evolved and developed. Usually the response was beautiful. (I’m thinking of Darryl Williamson’s "Arise City Conference" in Tampa, FL, and the older sister who stood to her feet at the end of my talk, called everybody out, and ran what could be called an altar call for me!) But I think the first time I knew I wanted to publish this book was during my tenure at Wheaton College. I realized (as I narrate in the book), that the Christian community needed a short, accessible, biblical treatment of this topic. A book that didn’t get lost on side issues. A book students could read (quickly), hand off to their parents, and they to the grandparents. I wanted to offer the Church their own book on this topic: “What Scripture says about the environment and why it matters.”  

Did you grow up in a home that valued conservation? If so, how did your parents practice conservation? If not, when did you become passionate about creation care?

No, I can’t say that I did. Like yours, my family was frugal. And like yours we camped a lot (there were a lot of us and we were military—cheap vacations!). I do think the camping and some of the adventurous places we lived as an oft-relocated Navy family awakened my deep empathy for the trials of creation. But I wasn’t raised with any sort of tutelage in environmentalism. Honestly, I think my passion for creation is part of my journey to faith. I believe that it was the image of God in me (prevenient grace for the Wesleyans out there!), and the Spirit of God calling me, that caused the majestic and fragile beauty of creation to resonate so deeply with me. As I say in the book: “When I stand at the ocean’s edge and feel the spray of its raging force on my face, when the wind silences me, when I am privileged to hold a wild creature in my hands” … my response is worship. This has always been true of me—even before I knew the Creator’s name.

What are the biggest hang-ups for evangelicals when it comes to creation care? Do you have a theory about why this is?

Having lectured and written on this topic for more than a decade at this point, I am pretty convinced that the “hang-ups” can be distilled to three issues. (1) The fact that in American politics environmentalism has been pigeon-holed into a “liberal” political agenda and has become guilty by association. Essentially, the accusation is that if you care about stewarding the planet you must also be a “liberal.” (2) The fact that we as Americans don’t typically see the impact of environmental degradation. We export most of our mess and never see the widow and the orphan picking through the trash piles we create. (3) The very unfortunate theological agenda that teaches that this earth will be annihilated at the end of the age. I deal with this misunderstanding of the New Covenant in chapter seven of the book.

You're a busy professor married to a professor with two growing daughters. What inspired you to raise chickens in your backyard? Surely not boredom?

Hah! The infamous chickens! Well Greta, Maggs, and Lucy will be thrilled to know they made the blog! Buttercup, may she rest in peace, will be grieved to have missed out. And we’ll be sure to send a note over to their sisters Sadie and Penelope who are keeping our friends Jack and Maggie in eggs these days! So, yes, I am “wicked busy,” but you make time for what you love don’t you? The chickens were a project for my youngest daughter and me. We both really wanted to do it, and Santa Barbara is a perfect place to raise chickens. California is a very libertarian state, so you can have chickens (not roosters) in pretty much any suburb. Better, you don’t have to heat your chicken coop to keep any of your hen’s feet from freezing off! More seriously, it is important to me that I practice what I preach. So in our house we recycle everything, we compost, we hang out our wash, we read labels, we eat very little meat, we have a vegetable garden, I drive a used Prius, we have rain barrels, and we’ve dropped all sorts of $$$ to landscape with native plants (which in SoCal means less water). Like any homeowner, I’m still learning (like what about solar panels?), but as I believe that environmental stewardship is a part of my responsibility as a Christian … I’m doing my best.  

Climate change is one of the most controversial aspects of the current debate about environmental concerns. Why did you choose not to talk about it in your book?

Great question. Several reasons. The first and most obvious is that the Bible has nothing to say about climate change. So any biblical theology of climate change is going to have to be an extrapolation—something I did not want to be doing in a book I promised was “just the Bible for those justly concerned.” Second and closely related, the steps any believer should be taking to curtail their own over-use of this planet and its resources will help to reverse climate change. So in many ways, climate change is a moot point. If we’d been doing our job as good stewards, we wouldn’t be having this problem. So what changes are needed? As Gus Speth, Chairman of the council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter has stated:

"I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy."

I say it this way in the book: “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains. He has given it to us to use in our need, but not to abuse in our greed.” When we get serious about our careless consumption of fossil fuel; when we start thinking about the supply chain for that fuel, our manufactured goods, our food; when we take stock of reckless land development … climate change will begin to unchange. So, yes, climate change is a huge issue that our carelessness has brought to the tipping point, but it is one that regular old responsible stewardship would have/still can resolve.

One of our first purchases when we moved to our current house was a 3-part trash bin for the kitchen, so that we could sort trash from plastic and paper recyclables. Our town has no recycling pick-up program, but we do have a local recycle center where we can bring our own recyclables. We've been pretty diligent about sorting trash making trips there. However, we heard a year or two ago that all the plastic recycling ends up in a landfill anyway because China will no longer accept plastics for recycling, and North America lacks the facilities to handle the volume of plastic waste. Have you explored this issue? Why should we keep sorting recyclables if it all ends up in the landfill anyway?

Yes, in 2018, China said, “We don’t want your trash anymore.” This, of course, sent major reverberations through many US businesses. If China wasn’t going to take our trash anymore, and we are now packaging everything from blueberries to underwear to new tools for our work bench in plastic, what are we going to do? The first question we should ask, of course, is why were we sending our trash overseas in the first place? Where is our sense of national responsibility? And what about the widow and the orphan in China?

The next question is, “Uh oh, if China has been recycling our plastic, do we have the infrastructure in the US to take care of our recycling ourselves?” And the answer right now is, no.  At this point we have more than 20 types of plastic packaging—and every time I go to the grocery store I see that COSTCO and Kroger have figured out a new way to use plastic for stuff that used to come loose or in cardboard. As a result, “virgin plastic” accounts for most of the plastic you and I see, which is produced by petro-chemical companies. These guys make billions producing their plastic (and will make billions more as current plans are to double the industry in the next five years). As the name implies, petro-chemical companies are using fossil fuels to make their stuff. And right now, virgin plastic costs less than 10% of the cost of recycled plastic. So what is a capitalist economy to do? The first thing we need to do is to be disturbed. Statistics such as those below should be a huge wake-up call:

  • More than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from plastic pollution every year; 100% of baby sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs. 
  • Every day around 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into our oceans.
  •  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (made up primarily of plastic) is bigger than Texas. 
Then we need to do something. What to do? Vote with your pocket book. Buy plastic packaging as little as possible. Choose the “avoid plastic packaging and extra packaging” option with Amazon. When you have to buy plastic, look for “recycled” on the label. Tell your grocery store manager you don’t want your food in “clam shell” packaging. Tell COSTCO that apples don’t occur naturally in plastic bubbles. Basically, let us make it as socially inappropriate to buy and sell in plastic as it is to smoke cigarettes in the work place!

Your book goes beyond recycling to talk about mining and food production. Those case studies were incredibly eye-opening for me, especially in light of the biblical teaching on agriculture and animal husbandry that you so powerfully explain. What can one person do to make a difference in a culture marked by greed and consumerism?

Thanks for this question, Carmen. The last section of Stewards of Eden is entitled “Resources for the Responsive Christian.” This appendix gives very practical, hands-on, “I can do this,” suggestions for the average human. Things like getting informed (subscribe to an environmental magazine in order to educate yourself); voting your informed conscience (Sierra Club offers a voting guide every year); voting with your purchase power are a great way to start. Links and addresses are all in there. As above, one powerful thing all Americans and Canadians can do is vote with their purchase power. We are capitalists, oh, yes we are. And if it doesn’t sell, the industry makes changes! So when you go to the grocery store, the hardware store, the car dealership, be willing to spend a bit more to invest in the industries you want to thrive. As with all things in our fallen world, we are not actually going to be able to fix this. The Rider on the White Horse is going to have to do that. Just as I will never succeed in emptying all the brothels in Thailand, finding a home for every abused child abandoned to the foster care system, or feed every orphan in Sub Sahara Africa—I am not going to fix this either. But as a Christian, it is my sworn duty to stand in the gap. It is our calling as salt and light to demonstrate to our bruised and broken world what a citizen of heaven looks like, “to live our lives as Adam and Eve should have, as Jesus Christ has.” Environmental degradation is a global and a local issue, our neighbors are impacted by this, our neighbors care about this. Where is our witness in the mix?  In sum, what I attempt to demonstrate in the book is that God cares about this, and we must too.
It's hard to imagine a more compelling book on this topic for Christians who care about what the Bible teaches about creation. Thanks for your excellent work to help us think well about environmental stewardship! 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Book Review: Sandra Richter's 'Stewards of Eden'

I grew up in a white, American, conservative Evangelical context, where "environmentalist" was a derogatory term. To us, environmental concerns were a liberal agenda. We certainly didn't want to be guilty of getting all wrapped up in saving the planet when the thing that mattered was people and their eternal destiny. 

At the same time, being of Dutch descent, it came naturally to avoid waste. We washed and reused ziplock bags, kept scraps of paper to use for craft projects, wore hand-me-down clothes, shopped at thrift stores, hung our laundry out to dry (at least for a while), and planted a garden. We were delighted to find free stuff on the side of the road on trash day or go dumpster diving behind the local craft store to rescue stuff from the landfill. Once, when my brother and I were young, we picked up cans on the side of the highway for miles with my parents to help pay for a new Red Flyer wagon. It's probably fair to say that we did all this to save money, not to save the planet. But we also enjoyed nature as a family, camping as often as we could. 

These days I'm puzzled over the apparent disconnect between our thrifty way of life and the aversion we had to environmental concerns. The more I study Scripture, the more I see how the mandate to care for creation is actually a central part of what it means to be human! Genesis 1:26-28 outlines God's vision for human vocation, and it's directly tied to our involvement with the animals and our shared habitat: 
Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." 

One book that is helping me rethink my relationship with this planet is Sandy Richter's brief introduction to creation care entitled Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It MattersSandy is a master at making rigorous biblical exegesis accessible to laypeople. 

She knows her stuff. Her Harvard dissertation was published by de Gruyter under the title The Deuteronomistic History and the Name Theology: lešakkēn šemô šām in the Bible and the AncientNear East, which sounds intimidating before you even open the cover,
but her Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament is one of the most down to earth and accessible books you'll find on the Old Testament. I've come to expect illuminating insights expressed in powerful prose. But Sandy is more than a respected author to me. She was a member of my dissertation committee and has slaved over my writing to help me improve. Were it not for her approval, I would not be Dr. Imes. We attended the same church in Wheaton for 2 years and I am honored to call her my friend. Stewards of Eden is just like Sandy -- short, but powerful, insightful and challenging.

One of the really compelling parts of Sandy's book is the chapter on Widows and Orphans. In it, she shows how our failure to practice sustainable stewardship disproportionately affects those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. In other words, the way we treat the planet affects people, especially the poorBecause most of our food and consumer products are produced and disposed of far from us, we are shielded from the sometimes devastating effects of their production and disposal. We "export" our environmental waste by manufacturing products in countries (or counties!) with looser restrictions. The implications of these business decisions will be felt for decades to come as the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer -- their lands crippled by toxic waste. In my mind this may be one of the most persuasive sections for Evangelicals who value people over the natural world. 

The CoronaVirus pandemic is providing us with a current case in point. Sandy and I can easily work from home as professors, and while our institutions are dealing with new financial challenges, we still have homes, food, and access to health care. "Shelter in place" is more likely to feel like a "staycation" for us than a death sentence. Meanwhile, blue collar workers are in large part unable to work from home and may have very little 'cushion' with which to weather the loss of income. Lower income neighborhoods have limited access to testing and less reliable health care coverage. The Navajo Nation is a sobering example. Limited access to water (right here in North America!) and limited access to healthcare and a lower overall level of community health are contributing factors to their higher-than-average COVID19 infection and death rates. The crisis of this pandemic exposes the inequities of our society and chastens our complacency.

Sandra L. Richter, Author of Stewards of Eden
One thing I deeply appreciate about Sandy's book is that she consistently demonstrates that Sinai still matters. Sandy takes us through God's instructions for ancient Israel to show how creation care -- including trees, fields, and animals -- is an integral part of God's expectations for the covenant community. These instructions help us see what matters to God and to human flourishing. Under Sandy's tutelage, your eyes will be opened to what these laws would have meant for the ancient landowner, an invitation to a radically generous way of life dependent on God's provision. While she does not suggest that we try to implement Old Testament law wholesale, she shows how the laws should continue to inform our ethics and practice. We, too, are invited to practice radical generosity. Sandy leaves readers with a whole list of practical ways to begin right now to reverse these trends and make a positive difference.

In my next post, I interview Sandy about Stewards of Eden -- what motivated her to write it and how we can begin to respond. You won't want to miss it!

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Reading 'Reading While Black' While White

Esau McCaulley is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, an ordained Anglican priest, and a fellow board member of the Institute for Biblical Research. I'm guessing that he wrote Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP, 2020) with Black readers in mind. But this white girl found it both helpful and inspiring.

May I make a public confession? I grew up in a very monocultural environment. We were not just all white, we were almost all of Dutch descent. My family is 100% Dutch on both sides, my church was about 95% Dutch, my school K-12 was probably at least 70% Dutch and about 95% white, and my neighbors were nearly all of Northern European descent. 

I didn't like being in a white bubble. I was intrigued by other cultures. I felt called to be a missionary, to take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. I learned Spanish, read missionary biographies, collected ethnic clothing, and dreamed of life in another culture. But even so, I mainly thought about what I had to offer, not what I had to learn.

I used to think that making space at the table for people of color was a matter of equality or justice, and that's part of it. People of color are made in the image of God and they should get a chance to speak. In theory, I imagined that reading the Bible with people from other cultural backgrounds would also be enriching. But I had no idea what I was missing! 

Over the past 5 years or so I've been reading more widely and adding books to my own library and to my college's as fast as I can. I'm convinced now that when we only listen to people who look like we do, we're missing out on a ton of insight. I'm discovering a rich world of biblical reflection by African, African-American, Latinx, Asian, Asian-American, First Nations, and Islander believers.

Reading While Black fills an important gap in my library as well as in my understanding. Ironically, much of what is published by minority authors reflects the politics of the ivory tower -- critical of Scripture -- at times representing a departure from the faith tradition. (There are probably a variety of reasons for this, but I suspect that university presses are simply well ahead of faith-based publishers in seeking out authors of color.) As a result, it's much harder to find published works that represent the views of the majority of churches in the global south, churches which are by-and-large conservative.

Esau McCaulley, author of 
Reading While Black
(photo: Wheaton College)
In Reading While Black, Esau seeks to recover the resources of the Black church tradition that arises from the pulpit and the pew rather than from the ivory tower. He models a faith-filled reading of the biblical text that remains engaged with politics and justice but does not neglect the call to holy living.

Each of his chapters tackles an issue about which the Scriptures have something profound to say -- a theology of policing, the political witness of the church, the pursuit of justice, black identity, black anger, and slavery. He issues a prophetic call back to the Scriptures and to a life of faithfulness. His is not a call to "make the best of" systemic injustice, nor does he seek a violent overthrow. Esau engages tough questions with verve, urging active but peaceful resistance to injustice.

I'm grateful for his voice. I've known Esau for a while now, and I've come to trust his commitment to the authority of Scripture. I also trust him to say hard things that need to be said, but to do it with pastoral sensitivity and kindness. I'm honored to call him my friend.

Many are wondering what to do when the protests have ended. How can we keep listening? My official endorsement of the book reads:
How can the church today effectively address the racial tensions that plague our nation? Esau has convinced me that the Black Church tradition holds the key -- maintaining fidelity to the Scriptures while fully engaging in the struggle for justice. This book is an excellent starting point for those who want to listen and learn a new way forward. Esau's prophetic voice is rooted in Scripture and full of hope. Highly recommended!
Why not start here? Reading While Black was supposed to release later this fall, but due to popular demand, IVP is stepping up the release to September 1, 2020. You can pre-order a copy here. You can listen to Esau talk about the book here. You can also spread the word and leave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads as soon as it releases.