Saturday, March 31, 2012

What We Eat

A friend of mine sent me a link to this video yesterday. I found it powerfully disturbing. Rather than comment further, I'll let you watch it.

How does this video make you feel? What response can we have as believers living in one of the wealthiest countries on earth?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Small Steps to a Healthier World

Over the past two days I've shared about my growing understanding of the impact our lifestyle choices make upon our environment and our own health and raised questions about the response (or lack thereof) on the part of a significant portion of the Christian community. Today I want to tell about some of the steps my family and I have taken in response to what we are learning.

Before I do that, I want to state clearly that I do not intend our responses to be prescriptive for others. Each family and individual lives in a unique set of circumstances and what is a reasonable and wise step for one person may not be possible or reasonable for another. I do encourage each person to consider what changes she or he may make that would change the negative impact of our lifestyles on ourselves and our planets. No single one of us can change everything, but each of us can take concrete steps that together can have a significant influence.

After reading about the damage chemicals do to our environment and our bodies, we decided to look for alternatives to using toxic chemicals around our home. We do this in order to have a positive impact on the larger environment, but even more so because we don't want our home to be a place that poisons us. My son and I both suffer fairly strongly from sinus allergies. If we can change things in our home to reduce those effects, that alone would make it worthwhile.

This past month we started replacing our household cleaning products with products from a company I am very excited about: Seventh Generation. ( At the moment I am very enamored with this company. I love that they strive to make products that are naturally-derived and which reduce or eliminate the toxic impact on the environment. I like that their products allow me to not worry about touching any residue left behind after cleaning. I also like that they are seeking to develop sustainability throughout their supply chain. They aren't perfect yet, by their own admission, but they are starting with the right goal in mind. We currently use their bathroom cleaning supplies, their dish detergent (both for hand-washing and dishwasher) and their laundry soap. Given our son's negative reaction to many ingredients in most laundry detergents, we are very hopeful and optimistic that Seventh Generation's “Free and Clear” line of products, free of all dyes, perfumes and masking agents, will work well for us. In addition to ordering on-line through the company's website or through, I've found their products at our local Target, a local whole-foods grocery store and I've even heard that some of their products are available at Wal-mart! We are also using their recycled paper products for our bathroom and cleaning.

Before sharing the next step, I must confess that I have Prius envy. More accurately I should say I had Prius envy. I really wanted to buy a Prius so that I could have a more environmentally-friendly car. This desire arose not only from a concern about greenhouse gases, but even more from a simple economic reason—with the price of gas climbing steadily, I want a car that's going to get good mileage. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, even a used-Prius was beyond our price range, so we settled for the most fuel-efficient vehicle we could reasonably afford—a Ford Focus. I look forward to the day when I can improve on its fuel efficiency, but I'm grateful for what it has. In the meantime, after some discussion with my brother, who is a resource economist, and with others, I've lost my shine on the Prius and other electric vehicles. I love the idea of getting away from petroleum-based internal combustion engines, but when I looked at the Prius and other such vehicles in terms of their life-cycle impact on the environment, I realized that they are not nearly the environmental champions they are marketed to be. The production and disposal of their batteries raises significant environmental concerns, concerns that the companies do not yet seem to be addressing. So the current electric car model does not strike me as being a sustainable, long-term option, although it may be a step in the right direction.

One of the biggest challenges is responding to the flood of plastics in our world. I would, in my idealistic perspective, like to rid my life of all plastics. But this is not really feasible. Even the director of the film I referenced doesn't claim that it is. So I must ask myself how and where I can eliminate plastics from my life. One small step I took was to stop buying beverages in disposable plastic containers. (Though even this is not a hard-and-fast rule. If I have no other viable option in a particular situation I will drink from such a container. But I will do all I can to put it in the recycling stream afterwards.) Each member of our family now has a stainless steel water bottle for taking drinking water with them. These bottles should last far longer than plastic, are safer for our health and can be more easily recycled at the end of their lifespan. It's not a world-changer, but it's a small step in the right direction.

I don't really think of myself as an environmentalist. I don't live off the fruit of the land. I don't even grow my own garden. I'm not terribly inclined in that direction anyway and living in southern Arizona gardening is a particularly tough challenge. I enjoy a good can of cola/pop/soda (pick your regional variant) and yes, I do even eat at McDonald's or other fast food places sometimes. I will continue to look at ways I can live with a smaller, healthier impact on my environment, but as I said at the outset, we cannot change everything.

How about you? What steps have you taken or could you take to reduce your impact on the environment and create a healthier world for yourself and others?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What's Our Responsibility?

Yesterday I raised the question:

What if the way we live is killing us and destroying the future of our planet?

I asked this question of myself in light of watching the film Plastic Planet and reading the book Silent Spring. These two media items address two specific areas of how our lifestyle and behaviour affects our environment and ultimately ourselves. I know that there are many more perspectives from which my question could be addressed. The whole issue of climate change comes to mind. Quite some time ago I shared some thoughts on that specific topic after watching the film An Inconvenient Truth. I wrote:

"Some argue that God has given us dominion over creation and interpret this to mean that we can do whatever we want with it. I don’t think that is sound biblical theology. God has given us responsibility to be good stewards of creation. Precisely because we are made uniquely in God’s image we bear the burden of making wise and responsible decisions about how we will live, especially as it impacts other humans and the rest of the natural world. The inconvenient and uncomfortable truth is that we, particularly as Americans, have chosen a lifestyle that is making the continuation of life increasingly difficult and which deprives a large portion of the inhabitants of this planet of the opportunity to meet even the basic needs of life. Why are we as believers so resistant to altering our lifestyle in order to be both better stewards of God’s creation and to be better servants towards those in the world whose situation is far worse than our own?"

When I listen to the conversations going on around me at my church, on Facebook and in other venues, I hear two basic responses. The first is apathy and ignorance. People don't know about the impact of their lifestyles and do not want to know. I can understand this because it takes time and effort to become an informed consumer and, worse still, it takes a willingness to make changes based on what one learns. 

I am troubled still more by the other basic response, the one that denies that our lifestyle has such a negative impact and that I am responsible to change my behavior to mitigate that impact. As I mentioned in that earlier post, I think this response comes from a faulty or inadequate theology, one that equates dominion with the right to exploit and destroy the earth in pursuit of our own perceived well-being. The theology behind this views this earth as a temporary place, a way-station on the way to heaven. Our goal is not to shepherd this earth with a view toward the future, but to make use of it to sustain us until we can get out of here and move on to heaven. I used to have a similar view, but as I shared in Monday's post, I'm beginning to see things from a different perspective, one that desires and works for the fulfillment of God's Kingdom on this earth, working toward the time when earth and heaven shall be one and the created order shall be restored and redeemed to the full beauty that God intended it to have. When we take this perspective, then we become not users and dominators of the earth, but care-takers and shepherds.

Kathy Escobar's post, which I commented on in my Tuesday post, points out another flaw with treating our environment as disposable. When we act this way, we do so because we want to keep what we have. We want to protect our power and privilege, regardless of the impact it may have on others on our planet, either in the present or the future. When I dump chemicals on my lawn so it can be beautiful I'm doing it for my present, temporary pleasure. When I choose to buy disposable products because they are cheaper or more convenient to me, I am thinking of myself and my convenience. I'm not taking into account the impact my actions will have on my own self down the road, or on my children, or their children, or on the people across the globe who are also impacted by my decisions.

What if we began to think about our lifestyle from a different perspective; from a perspective that doesn't look primarily at the short-term cost-benefit to myself, but at the long-term impact on not only myself but on others? Would that fit better with a Jesus-centered life?

Tomorrow I will share a few changes I along with my family have made to live differently in light of what we're learning.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Are We Poisoning Ourselves?

I came across two items over the last few months that have challenged the way I think about the way I live. The first is a documentary that I watched on Netflix entitled Plastic Planet, directed by Werner Boote. The second is a book that my wife picked up out of curiosity one day at the library: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. These have both left me asking myself the following question:

What if the way we live is killing us and destroying the future of our planet?

In Plastic Planet director Boote explores the impact that the production, consumption and disposal of petroleum-based products has on our environment, including our very bodies. We have become dependent on these products but the chemicals they are made of enter the environment, poison our food chain and eventually ourselves. His efforts to raise questions about this with the petroleum and plastics industry are met with glib assurances about the benefits and safety of plastic and, as he continues to push the issue, with stony silence and closed doors. He also shows how easily we accept the benefits of technology without questioning their effects, simply because we are reassured by those who want us to consume their product. This documentary opened my eyes.

I'm still reading Silent Spring and, quite frankly, may not finish it. It is not an easy read, but it wasn't meant to be. Many credit Carson and her book with initiating the environmental movement. Reading the book I understand why. Carson explores the impact of the widespread use of insecticides and herbicides to keep our gardens, fields and cities pest free. A statement she makes early in the book struck me quite powerfully:

“It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.”

But this, she argues and illustrates through examples, is precisely what we are doing. Although her book resulted in some legislation and civic action to curb the use of certain pesticides, Americans continue to use millions of pounds of them every year. We have poisoned our soil, our air and our water in our efforts to rid ourselves of various plants and animals considered to be pests. This is not to say that some plants, insects and animals may be undesirable in certain contexts. But Carson would argue that there is a better way that mass spraying of pesticides. Ideally one utilizes natural controls, although Carson seems to allow for limited, focused use of pesticides in certain situations.

Both of these items make me wonder about what appears to be a growing incidence of illnesses that we hardly encountered even a generation or two ago. I'm not a scientist and will make no claim to a direct causal link, but after watching the film and reading the book, I cannot but question whether the cumulative effect of all the plastics and poisons in our world have sickened us. In fact they may be slowly killing us. Both the film and the book present evidence to this effect. I consider my own situation. I suffer from sinus allergies fairly severely, though not as severely as could be. Since the pollens and such that trigger my allergies have always existed, what is it that makes myself and so many others respond to them now with such severity? Could it be an effect of the chemicals that have damaged our environment and my own body? Those who advocate maintaining the status quo, or are enamored with the power we have to control our environment through chemicals and plastics, will strongly answer “No.” But I'm sceptical, highly sceptical. I think that, while the links may not be clearly established throughout the chain, it is highly plausible that our modern way of life has in fact contributed to the damage of our bodies and our planets.

I'll return to this topic tomorrow, but I invite your thoughts on this important issue. What do you think, is our way of life and our use of plastics and pesticides damaging our environment, ourselves and our future? 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What Love Looks Like in Public

I recently encountered the blog written by Kathy Escobar (listed in my blog list as "the circus in my mind" because for some reason my blog engine will not allow me to change the title). Last week she wrote a great piece on feminism and how people can get hung up on the word rather than understanding the core issue of restoring dignity. I was planning to comment on that post, until I read what she posted yesterday

She describes how earlier in her life she transitioned from being a passionate advocate for equal rights and social change into focusing on more conservative issues: "the erosion of morality in America, the horrors of public education, and making sure tax money wasn't spent on things I disagreed with." At some point though she realized:

"I was not hungering and thirsting for justice. I was hungering and thirsting for a false feeling of safety and protection that I felt entitled to as a Christ-follower."

In other words, as she admits, "It was all about me."

What's more, she says, "It didn't satisfy....It was for [sic] more focused on being 'right' than being kind, on distrust than love, on self than others, on division than unity."

Her words and her experience spoke powerfully to me. When I think about the conservative Christian agenda for this country, I see exactly what she speaks of. I see people afraid of losing power and control and in their efforts to hold on to those things acting out of anger, fear, distrust and, yes, selfishness. I do not see the attitude of Christ, who gave up his position, his power, his authority and became a servant to show God's love. He didn't try to defend a status quo, or even to return society to some perceived earlier Golden Era. He demonstrated love to the broken and outcast and he challenged the power and abusive behavior of those in positions of control and authority.

I have to ask myself, as Kathy says of herself, whether my efforts to protect myself, my family and even my culture do not reflect Jesus, but reflect only a particular cultural view. And if I'm honest, the answer must be yes.

"Self-protection, culture-protection will never satisfy, will never quench our thirst."

Read Kathy's article and tell her or me what you think. Are we as Christ-followers in America more focused on pursuing our own self-protection than thirsting for God's justice and righteousness? What does love look like in public, particularly in a multicultural society?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Praying the Lord's Prayer -- Part 2

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I have felt for some time now that these simple words capture the heart of how we should pray. After all, aren't all our cries and prayers for the salvation of friends, family and others, all our agony for the sick, injured and wounded, and all our longings for justice and shalom in the world summed up in the wish that God's kingdom would come on this earth? When God's kingdom is fully realized, when earth and heaven become one, then we will no longer need to pray for these things, because creation will be restored to the perfection that God originally gave it.

N.T. Wright in his short book The Lord and His Prayer, as well as in the other writings of his that I have read, has helped me regain a healthier focus on the interaction between heaven and earth. Prior to reading his writings I would have described heaven as some other place that we go to when we die. I would have emphasized the temporal nature of this earth and this life, regretting its fallen nature and the implications this has for all of creation. I would have encouraged myself and others to strive to live godly lives so that we could enjoy the fruit of it in that future heavenly place. I would have read this phrase from the Lord's Prayer with the emphasis on that future day when we, the redeemed, will enjoy the fulness of God's kingdom in heaven.

I cannot do full justice to Wright's perspective and would encourage readers to pick up his books and read them for yourselves. In addition to the volume we're looking at here, I particularly recommend his book Surprised by Hope, which led to this profound shift in my own understanding of heaven, salvation and a host of related areas. In the work at hand Wright reminds us that this statement, this cry for God's kingdom to come, was fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus.

“Jesus' first followers, to their own great surprise, quickly came to believe that God's kingdom had come, and his will had been done....They believed that in the unique life, death and resurrection of Jesus the whole cosmos had turned the corner from darkness to light. The Kingdom was indeed here, though it differed radically from what they had imagined.”

I think (and hope!) that most Christians recognize somewhere in their conceptual theology what Jesus' first followers understood. But practically the Church, in particular the evangelical American church, has come to speak and act as if the arrival of God's kingdom was very much a future event, one that will happen at the end of time as we know it. The focus has shifted to the future and we have lost the recognition that God's kingdom has already been initiated in this world. We have, as Wright argues in Surprised by Hope, lost sight of the significance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. A key part of that, he reminds us, is that God in Jesus is redeeming and transforming this world and restoring it to the perfection it originally had. At some future point in time that process will be completed and, Wright says, heaven will come here on earth. Heaven, he tells us in Surprised by Hope, is not someplace out there. It's the fulfillment of the creation he originally began, in which we still live and in which he is still working.

Of course his Kingdom is not yet complete. We all recognize that, no matter how optimistic we are.  This should not surprise nor dismay us, for “The Kingdom did indeed come with Jesus; but it will fully come when the world is healed, when the whole creation joins in the song." We pray these words Jesus gave us not because we long for some future time when we shall be rescued out of this fallen world into the heavenly realms where all will be perfect. No, we pray them because we are joining with Jesus in asking God to complete her work of redeeming and transforming this fallen creation. 

“We look immediately out upon the whole world that he made, and we see it as he sees it....See it with the love of the creator for his spectacularly beautiful creation; and see it with the deep grief of the creator for the battered and battle-scarred state in which the world now finds itself.”

We need not pray for the coming of God's Kingdom and will as an escape from the harsh realities of this fallen world. Rather we pray for them to be fully realized because we understand that God loves this fallen world. We pray it because we desire to join Jesus in being agents of grace and transformation here and now. We pray it because we believe that God desires the healing of his world and that she will accomplish this, because the process began in and receives its power from the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“We are praying, as Jesus was praying and acting, for the redemption of the world; for the radical defeat and uprooting of evil; and for heaven and earth to be married at last, for God to be all in all. And if we pray this way, we must of course be prepared to live this way."

Now that's a prayer that I can get excited about.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Wholistic Worship

Browsing through various blogs yesterday I came across this post. I'd actually like to hear more of Rachel's own thoughts and experience on wholistic worship, but what she wrote about the book intrigued me enough to add it to my potential reading list. I think she, and the authors of the book she writes about, are on to an important aspect of Christian life and a significant weakness in most Protestant experience. We have so centralized the preaching and teaching of the word (written small, because to me the Word written large refers to Jesus, the living Word), we have so intellectualized worship, that we have robbed it of much of its richness. Essentially in many of our churches and worship services we have accepted a dualism that places the mind or spirit above the body, as if God didn't create our bodies as well as our spirits and minds. 

This brings us into contact with the whole issue of our theology of the body (i.e. physical body, not the Body as in the Church), which I'm not going to try to address at this time. Suffice it to say, as many others have said better than I could, that Christians in general and evangelical American Christians in particular are really uncomfortable with our bodies. Our practical theology shows that we view them as something temporary and expendable, when in fact, as N.T. Wright reminds us, they are the forerunners to the resurrection bodies we will be given. We will not be raised just as spirits. In some form we will have bodies in God's future kingdom.

I attend a church that places the focus of the worship service on the sermon and, quite frankly, I wish it were not so. I'm not saying there's no place for reflecting on the Book. But when 45 minutes out of 90 is spent on that, it tells us that we don't really think the other aspects of worship are very important. Yes, we do some singing, though not nearly enough, and some praying, though also not enough and generally exclusively from the front, but we do little or nothing that engages my eyes, my sense of touch, my sense of taste (except on communion Sundays, and then it's a very paltry offering) or my sense of smell. There's nothing visual to captivate me. It's as if we're afraid of the senses. Or maybe we just lack the creativity to find ways to incorporate the full body into worship. I admit that I'm weak on ideas, but I know there are others who could easily generate some good ones.

The Orthodox churches don't suffer from this problem. In this post I described my experience visiting on a single day an Orthodox and a Protestant church in Finland. I really like and appreciate this aspect of Orthodoxy, that they worship with all their senses. There are other aspects that I cannot accept and keep me from becoming Orthodox (also not the topic of today's discussion.) But I think we could learn from our Orthodox brothers and sisters in this area. I'd certainly like to see us explore a more wholistic spirituality. 

What is your experience of wholistic worship? How does your worship community engage in worshiping God? What do you like about it and what would you like to see changed? How can we more creatively and fully worship God with all our senses?

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Color Pink

Today I want to pose a question:

Can Unguys wear pink?

Let me expand on this with one more question:

Can guys in general wear pink?

I say "Yes." Many years ago I had a hot-pink t-shirt that I wore until it was no longer wearable. (Does anyone recall the "Golden Boy" episode on Seinfeld?) Last week I saw a pink t-shirt in the store and decided it was a good time to replace that long-gone, but not forgotten one. You see, I actually rather like the color pink. I'm not saying I want everything to be pink, but I think the color has gotten a bad rap, especially among men. So I'm advocating for a pink revolution.

I was wearing my new pink shirt around the house the other day and both of my children commented that guys aren't supposed to wear pink. "It's just not right," they said. I thought to myself, "Who raised these kids?" They got this idea from the culture, not from me, as they revealed by their further comments. I asked them whether they thought the culture should determine all our choices. They were silent. At other times when the topic of pink has come up and they, especially my son, have made negative remarks, I recite the great line from one of the Pixar shorts:

"Pink, pink, what's wrong with pink? Seems like you've got a pink kink in your think."

So I intend to proudly wear my new pink t-shirt. I expect that my kinds won't be the only ones to raz me about it, but I don't care. I like pink. After all, it's the color of sensitivity, right?

One of these days I'll change my profile picture to me in my new pink shirt.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Community: Virtual AND Real

Warning: Long post today!

I've been pondering the idea of community lately. I think community is vital to our health as humans: spiritual, emotional and even physical. I do not think that humans were meant to live in isolation, regardless of whether they are introverts or extroverts. We need community.

But some of us find it difficult to develop community. I don't think our American culture facilitates this very well. Having returned last summer after many years living outside the country I am struggling to connect and fit into a community. My family and I returned to the church that we had attended when we went overseas and most recently a couple years ago while on home assignment. We have been warmly welcomed and we know many people there, but I at least struggle to really feel like I am part of the community. I think that people care, but yet the interactions on Sunday remain largely superficial. I recognize that we can only go so deep in the context of Sunday morning worship, although I think our worship communities would do well to put off the superficial and move into deeper relationship with one another. In order to find deeper community my wife and I joined a small home fellowship group. After many months I finally am beginning to feel like I am truly a part of the group, although I often feel like I don't fit well because of my perspectives on many issues. So far they haven't thrown me out, but I also haven't fully opened myself either. I tried attending a men's group at the church, but they meet early on a weekday morning which is not an ideal time for me. In fact, at this point it's not a workable time at all as I must take my daughter to school. So I started attending a men's group at another church that meets during lunchtime. I really enjoy the fellowship and time discussing the Bible, but again I feel like the odd man out, in part because of my age (other than myself, there are usually only a couple of men who are not of retirement age. My father attends with me and he is young compared to most of the group), and in part because of my viewpoints.  I don't think I should only join groups where I agree with everyone, but at the same time it's hard to open up in a group if you fear that you will be met with an overwhelmingly negative response.

I think that it is particularly hard for working-age men to find community. I may be wrong, because obviously I cannot write from the perspective of a woman. But it seems to me that women have more opportunities. Churches run women's events during the daytime and most groups to support stay-at-home parents (whether of toddlers or homeschoolers) seem oriented toward women—which is natural since most adults in these categories are women. But when I was staying home with my children as toddlers I didn't feel I could join such groups because I was a man and there wasn't a place for me. Because men my age are working during the day and more often than not investing time in their families in the evenings, it is hard to find time to get together with them. So community suffers.

Simply put, we're often too busy to invest in one another.

Lately I've found a new community, an active and engaging community. This community, however, is virtual. It happens through blogs, on Facebook and in other virtual venues. Some argue that Facebook promotes superficiality in relationships, that it cannot promote real community and relationship. Certainly that can be the case. But I'm finding that it doesn't have to be. Through the internet we can connect with people we don't have the opportunity to meet with face-to-face. Not only can we keep in touch with old friends who are now physically distant, we can make new friends with people who are far away.

Is this community any less real? Someone might say that in a virtual community one doesn't really know the other people. We only know the image that they present online. Well, that's true. Of course the same can be said for people we interact with regularly in person. I've known plenty of people in “real” life who were quite good at projecting an image and getting people to believe it. So face-to-face interaction doesn't eliminate that possibility. 

I think we do need local community and I plan to continue to expand and deepen mine. At the same time, I'm really glad that I can be part of virtual communities, that I can meet new people and share in their lives and stories. I can learn from them. Perhaps someday we'll have the opportunity to meet face to face, but if not, that doesn't make the relationship any less real.

I think that the key to any community or relationship being real is vulnerability. If we are not able and willing to be vulnerable, we cannot experience true community in any context. Unfortunately I think this is often the reality we face. Most of us, myself included, fear vulnerability out of shame, so we build walls and hide behind them. We protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt by not reaching out, not sharing, not revealing our weaknesses and hurts, not opening up our true selves. This happens in local relationships and in virtual ones. But as we have the courage to be vulnerable, we can begin to form real community, both in person and virtually. I can be just as real and vulnerable to someone over the internet as I can in person. It's a risk either way. I just have to decide that it's worth taking.

I think we men suffer more in this area because we have such a hard time being vulnerable. I cannot say for certain, because I cannot speak from the perspective of my female friends. I'd love to hear what they think. But I do know that I find it harder to be vulnerable with men because there is always that fear of being judged as weak and cast off, ridiculed or rejected as not being “man” enough. The funny thing is, I think lots of men feel this way, but we have a hard time getting past the cultural walls that keep us from actually admitting it. I certainly find it easier to open up with women because in general I find they aren't as quick to judge and are more often willing to go deeper in communication. I think it's one of the great benefits of relationships between men and women. In interacting with those who are unlike us, we learn to see things in a new way and, hopefully, become less quick to judge and condemn and therefore, more able to be vulnerable ourselves.

How do you experience community? In what ways have you found community locally? Have you found that you can have meaningful community virtually? How do we create environments in which we can be vulnerable with one another?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What Would Your Name Be?

When we read European history from the medieval period or earlier we encounter characters that have what strike me as odd and interesting names: names like Eric the Red, Karl the Great, Richard the Lionhearted, Peter the Hermit, Robert the Bruce (although I have no idea what exactly that means) and others. Sometimes these names describe the person's occupation, but more often I think they capture, or try to capture, some aspect of the person's appearance, character, personality or behaviour. It's interesting, as well as a bit scary, to consider having your entire identity summarized in a single word.

Yesterday I was thinking about names such as these for reasons that will only make sense to those who know how my strange mind works. I began to ponder what appropriate names in this style would be for my family members. For reasons of family harmony I'm not going to share with you the monikers I came up with, but I did tell them to my wife and daughter as we were preparing dinner. I then asked my teenage daughter what name she would give me. She thought for a moment and said:

Andrew the Anxious


While I know we were joking with one another and therefore I shouldn't take her answer too much to heart, the fact is that she captured me far too well for my comfort. Out of the mouths of our teens. This saddened me, not because she said it, but because there was so much truth in what she said. I am anxious far too often. I worry about everything. I can't tell you how many times I have had to go back to Jesus' words in Matthew 6 and Paul's words to the Philippians (chapter 4). I have grown and am growing in this area, but I cannot say that I have completely set anxiety aside. I want to, but I'm not there yet.

At the heart anxiety and worry are trust issues. At the very root for me is the question of whether I can trust God. Intellectually I say yes. Practically I often say no. My actions say no. The thoughts running through my mind and the efforts I make to stay in control of my world say no. It's a painful truth. In my heart I question, even doubt, God's trustworthiness. And this despite the faithfulness he has shown to me and my family throughout my life. When will I learn?

This past year has taught me a lot about trust, about not being anxious for tomorrow, about being prayerful about everything. It's a step in the right direction. I'd like to think that there will come a point when this will no longer be an issue for me. I hope that day will come. But I've been working on it for so long now and it seems to be a process of three steps forward, two steps back. Sometimes it even seems more like two steps forward three steps back.

Thank God (and my wife!) for grace. And patience. I think if I were in God's shoes and had to deal with me I'd have given up in frustration long ago. I'm so thankful that is not how God works. And I'm thankful that the name God gives me is not the one my daughter did, or even one that I might give myself. I can think of many words I'd rather have applied to me and I hope that some of them would be accurate, words like “compassionate,” “caring,” “learner.” One that God has given me that I should hold on to and cherish above all others would be: Andrew the redeemed. I like that one.

What one-word title would summarize you? What do you think those who know you best would say?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Thoughts on Reading Numbers 31

I was reading Numbers 31 the other day. At the LORD's command, Moses sends out the army of Israel to take vengeance on the Midianites. The men fight victoriously and kill every adult Midianite male (v. 7). As they return, Moses, the priests and the community leaders go out to meet the army and Moses becomes angry with them. At this point (vv 15-18) we hear the voice of Moses:

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They are the ones who followed Balaam's advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD's people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

These verses really trouble me. I do not know how to reconcile them with God being a God of love, mercy and grace. Through his prophet Moses he is ordering the murder of women and male children and sanctioning the enslavement of female youth and children. This ostensibly is being done because the women led the Israelite men into idolatry. But even if we acknowledge that some of them did this, a blanket judgment on all the older women seems quite harsh. And what became of the young women who were kept alive? Were they mere household slaves, which would be bad enough, or did they suffer even worse abuse and degradation? The text is vague about this other than that a certain percentage of them were offered to the Levites as a tribute to the LORD.

Considering how readily we condemn Islam for inciting acts of violence against non-believers, it seems we need first to wrestle with the skeletons in our own closet. I read a book entitled Laying Down the Sword that raised this question and gave some suggestions for how one needs to deal with such passages, as I talked about here. I'd like to find a hermeneutic that gives me a means to interpret and respond to passages like this. Currently, along with Rachel HeldEvans and many others, I'm reading N.T. Wright's book Scripture and the Authority of God. I'm hoping that he may point to a way forward through passages like this, but we haven't read far enough in the book to have an answer yet.

I think these passages should disturb us. The commentary in my NIV Study Bible (2011 edition) doesn't indicate that these passages are in any way disturbing. This violence is treated as the appropriate and reasonable response to the godlessness and idolatrous ways of the Midianites, particularly their acts in leading the Israelites astray. Is it as simple as that? If so, why do we not pursue a similar course of vengeance today when we see acts of godlessness? (Mind you, I'm not encouraging this and would be appalled by anyone who did encourage or act in such a way.) These are some of the questions asked by the author of Laying Down the Sword. Unfortunately I've heard little or no dialog about these issues in most Christian circles.

How do you respond to this passage? How do you reconcile this with a God of love, who desires that all may be saved? What do you think should be done with such violent passages?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Praying the Lord's Prayer--Part 1

I enjoy praying—most of the time. Sometimes I don't want to pray, but more often I struggle because I don't know what to pray. I don't know what words to use. I wish I came from a liturgical tradition so I had a framework of  prayer to support me. I know I could obtain a prayer book and use that, but because I'm not used to it, it still seems unnatural to me, though perhaps I may step out in that direction yet. Lately I have gone back to the basics and started using the pray Jesus taught his disciples as my basic framework. On most mornings I pray as I walk around a park after dropping my daughter at school. It's a great time and environment, with no distractions and the beauty of God's creation around me.

I want to explore this prayer with my readers, using N.T. Wright's book The Lord and His Prayer as a commentary to guide our thoughts. For the next several weeks I will use the chapters of this book, which each address one section of the prayer, as the focus of our discussion. This week we will look at the opening line:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Wright looks at this opening expression not primarily in terms of an expression of intimacy between Father and Son. He acknowledges this aspect but claims that it is not as revolutionary in terms of the relationship between God and His people as we are inclined to think. Wright points back further, to God's reference to Israel as his child, a reference that he argues would have resonated with Jesus' original audience. This relationship between God and Israel spoke of God's promise to rescue his people from captivity and slavery. Wright states: “For Israel to call God 'Father', then, was to hold on to the hope of liberty.” With this in mind, he says, “The very first word of the Lord's Prayer...contains within it not just intimacy, but revolution. Not just familiarity; hope.”

By referring to God as his Father, Jesus also reminds us of the type of relationship he has with God and  invites us into the same relationship. He invites us to be sons and daughters of the most high God. There are many dimensions to this, but Wright points to one in particular: in the culture in which Jesus lived and died, a son would normally apprentice to his father and learn from him. Jesus spoke of doing what he saw the Father doing. We see Jesus, the Son of God, learning from the Father. More specifically, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, he learned obedience through suffering (5:7-9). In inviting us into relationship as daughters and sons of God, Jesus invites us also into this aspect of that relationship; that we would learn by watching what Jesus and the Father do. He invites us to participate in his work.

Jesus, as the Messiah, was the fulfillment of Israel's hope for liberation. However, this liberation comes about not through military victory or power, but through suffering and sacrifice. God the Father's work, Wright tells us, is one of revolution, a revolution to set the people of this earth free and to bring His kingdom to fulfillment on earth as in heaven. “This revolution,” writes Wright, “comes about through the Messiah, and his people, sharing and bearing the pain of the world, that the world may be healed.”

Therefore, argues Wright, when we pray “Our Father in heaven,” we are expressing our desire to learn from him and to join him and Jesus in their revolutionary act of bringing his kingdom to this earth. I really like these words from Wright:

“When we call God 'Father', we are called to step out, as apprentice children, into a world of pain and darkness....if we take the risk of calling him Father; then we are called to be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in the healing light of the love of God.”

As we pray this and as we become his agents of transformation in this world, then his name will be honored, praised and worshiped because people will be set free and this earth will see the redemption of God in tangible ways. When I think of it in this way I feel inspired. I am awakened to the fact that I am a part of God's redeeming work. At the same time I am reminded that I have yet to grow into the fulness of this prayer and the fulness of my relationship with God as Father (or Mother, if you prefer.) As Wright reminds us at the beginning of this chapter, the Lord's Prayer is like a suit of clothes we must grow into, that “it will take full Christian maturity to understand, and resonate with, what those words really mean.” 

What do you think of this understanding of the Lord's Prayer? How do you approach these opening words? How do you understand the relationship between yourself and God as Father/Mother?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Silence of God

Today I want to share the words to a song I really like and have been listening to again lately. The version I have is performed by Michael Card on his album The Hidden Face of God.

It'll drive a man crazy, it'll break a man's faith,
It's enough to make him wonder if he's ever been sane.
When he's bleating for comfort from Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heavens' only answer is the silence of God.

It'll shake a man's timbers when he loses his heart,
When he has to remember what broke him apart;
This yoke may be easy, but this burden is not
When the crying fields are frozen by the silence of God.

But when you have to listen to the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes of all the happiness they've got,
When they tell you all their troubles have been nailed up to that cross,
Then what about the times when even followers get lost?
'Cause we all get lost sometimes...

There's a statue of Jesus on a monastery knoll
In the hills of Kentucky, all quiet and cold;
He's kneeling in the garden, as silent as a stone
All His friends are sleeping, and He's weeping all alone.

And the Man of all sorrows, He never forgot
What sorrow is carried by the hearts that He bought;
So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God,
The aching may remain, but the breaking does not.
The aching may remain, but the breaking does not,
In the holy, lonesome echo of the silence of God.

Words by Andrew Petersen (c) NewSpring Publishing

Have you ever experienced the silence of God? How did you feel and how did you respond?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Listening to Shame

I have seen a number of good talks from TED, but this one spoke to me more strongly than any other I've heard yet. In this powerful video Brené Brown addresses the issues of shame and vulnerability. "Vulnerability is not weakness" she states emphatically. In fact, she declares, "vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage." She adds, "Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change."

I appreciated how she addressed the difference in the way men and women experience shame. Both feel shame. According to her, only sociopaths don't experience shame. "For women," she says, "shame is: do it all, do it perfectly and never let 'em see you sweat....Shame for women is this web of unattainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who you are supposed to be." I can see this in the lives of the women I know, though of course I cannot verify it from my own personal experience. I would love to hear from women how they respond to what she says about shame.

I resonated with her comments about shame and men. At first, starting at 16:28 in the video she tells us, she didn't study shame in men, until a man challenged her one time at a book signing. This man, in her words, pointed to his wife and daughters nearby and told Brown, "They'd rather see me die on my white horse than watch me fall down.When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don't tell me it's by the guys and coaches and dads, because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else."

"For men," Brown states, "shame is one: do not be perceived as weak." That's so true. Thankfully I have a wife who does not really behave as the man in the bookstore described, but our culture puts all sorts of pressure on us, both from men and women, not to be weak, not to be vulnerable. This leaves us wearing masks, projecting images of "manliness" but cuts us off from real relationship and, for many of us at least, from expressing our inner self. We live in shame because I think all men feel weak at some point, in some area of their lives. But our society doesn't want us to show it. And this is more often than not true in the Church just as much as it is in society in general.

"Empathy is the antidote to shame," Brown concludes. As we step out and offer ourselves in vulnerability, we open the door to empathy. Unfortunately we also open the door to ridicule and mockery. But as we receive empathy and offer it to one another, we can overcome the shame that tells us we are mistakes, that we are unworthy, that we are failures.

What are your thoughts on this video? How have you felt shame in your life?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Embracing Our Brokenness

I just finished a book written by Doug Nuenke, a man I've known since high school, when he led the youth ministries at the church I attended. I have not had direct, personal interaction with him much since those high school years, but I have always rather admired him as a man of God and a successful leader. He now leads a major Christian ministry, so when he published his book I was curious to see what he had to say.

His candor about his own failures and brokenness through his adolescence and years of ministry surprised me. From my perspective, this is a man who has had years of successful ministry, whom others admire and who has achieved great things for God. The revelations (which is a bit strong of a word, there's nothing in his life that most of us have not dealt with) in his book do not discredit these perceptions. He has had many years of successful ministry. But he has done so through failure, brokenness and hurt. He cites the words of A.W. Tozer:

“It is doubtful that God will use a person greatly whom He has not hurt deeply.”

Doug continues by saying:

“...It is brokenness, weakness, and trials that lead to humility and set the stage for a deeper experience of God's care and grace. Likewise those who make waves of grace most readily are those who have gained credibility through their own suffering.” 

Strangely enough, reading that encouraged me. Too often I see Christian leaders held up as paragons of virtue, their lives virtually perfect, their families beautiful—a reality unattainable to me. Therefore, I obviously cannot aspire to serve God because I certainly don't have my life together like they do. In the past few months I've seen God take away from me a ministry that just seemed to be at the cusp of bearing fruit. I've seen myself and my family pass through serious struggles of identity and faith. As I have shared in other posts, these struggles are not over. 

Doug argues, as have others such as A.W. Tozer, that the first step toward spiritual maturity is to be broken. We must become dependent on him before we can really be used by him. Otherwise we're just serving our own egos, trying to satisfy our own desire and need for authenticity, identity and meaning through our own efforts. As Doug writes, “You see, broken dependence leads us to pursue God.”

I am drawn to Jesus and the message of the Gospel because it doesn't require me to get my life together before I can be accepted. I don't have to be perfect to earn God's favor. In fact, the more I pretend that I've got it together, the farther I am from him. I don't need to have my sinfulness emphasized. I already feel plenty unworthy. What I need to hear over and over again is the message of God's grace, the message of the Father welcoming back his wandering son, embracing him with open arms without reproaching him for his failures and foolishness. This is the Good News. I appreciate that Doug shared his vision of how God can work in and through us, not despite our brokenness but because of our brokenness. That's a message I can relate to.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Faith, Failure and Freedom

I think I can safely say that every parent has dreams and hopes for their children. I certainly do. For Christians (and probably for followers of other religions), one of those hopes is that our children will grow to accept and walk in the faith that we profess. We take our kids to Sunday School and to youth programs, send them to summer camps and engage in conversations about faith around the home so that they will hear the stories of the Bible and embrace the Gospel message. We try in various ways to lay the foundation of faith, hoping that our children will acknowledge, accept and choose to build on this foundation. Some try to accomplish this more through a form of indoctrination. Some think they have succeeded when their child prays a “sinner's prayer.” Others try to pass on faith through their life, sharing with their children the stories of Scripture as well as the stories of their own journey of faith.

Unfortunately, sometimes (often?) our dreams and hopes for our children are not realized. Sometimes they are not realized in small ways. Other times the gap between reality and our dreams can be quite large. At this point in my life, I face a large gap in regard to my hopes for my teenage daughter. She has made it clear to her mother and I that she does not consider herself to be a Christian. She acknowledges the existence of God but believes that he either doesn't care about people or that he doesn't demonstrate it very well. These are hard words to hear from one's own child. Even harder to hear are her struggles with how to live consistently with her current beliefs. Her parents work with a particular Christian ministry and everyone in our home church knows this. She recognizes that it might be awkward for her parents if she expresses her doubts and disbelief around others from our church. She doesn't want to create problems for us, but her efforts to avoid this leave her feeling like she lacks integrity. We continue to insist that she accompany us to worship on Sunday because we believe it is true and important, but this places her in the difficult position of feeling like a hypocrite.

Her mother and I have both had conversations with her about this. We have not sought to convince her of the correctness or truth of the Gospel. She knows the stories and the Gospel message well enough. She's been in Christian schools, churches and circles all her life. She doesn't need more indoctrination. She needs someone who will accept and affirm her as she is now, where she is now. Her mother and I are trying very hard to give her this. Now that we are more aware of her feeling of being a hypocrite, we have expressed to her that she should freely acknowledge her current beliefs and doubts and questions, even in the church community. We are capable of dealing with the questions and even possible rejection that may arise as a result. We would rather our daughter be sincere about where she's at then place her in a duplicitous position just so we can present a shining example of Christian family. We hope we have communicated clearly to her that in our family there is freedom to question, doubt, even disbelief and still find acceptance and love.

I often feel frustrated by the posts I see on Facebook of various Christian families we know. I am not accusing any of them of lying, because I don't know the internal lives of their families well enough. But so many posts I read seem to present the particular family in the best possible light, as paragons of Christian virtue. Maybe they are. However, I think that within Christian subculture, particularly evangelical subculture, we create intentionally or unintentionally the pressure to present ourselves as better than we really are. We feel subtle or even overt pressure to have the perfect Christian family with children who love nothing more than to get up in front of the church and sing “Jesus loves me.” Thank God for those whose children really do enjoy that. Mine would die of mortification at the thought—and would be hypocritical to boot. Sometimes I wish I had one of these ideal Christian families. Then I realize that I'd rather have a family where we can struggle openly and honestly with our doubts, questions and fears. We don't have to have all the right answers. We don't have to have all our ducks in a row. I hope that our family can be a place where grace and love prevail.

As I consider where my daughter is at right now, I also struggle with feelings of failure. Where did I as her father go wrong? What should I have done differently to insure that she would grow up to wholeheartedly embrace the faith I try to live by? I can look at the journey of our life and wonder how things might have been different if we had made choice B instead of choice A. I've spent a lot of time in the past few months feeling like a failure, for this and other reasons. It's not a pleasant place to be. I don't claim that I have not made mistakes in parenting. My decisions have not always been ideal, but I don't live in an ideal world. In my world we do our best to decide and live wisely, but we make mistakes and fail and learn and, hopefully, grow in the process. I still beat myself up at times over my failures and their impact on my daughter, my son and my wife. But I'm learning to accept God's grace to me as well and to trust that he is able to work through all these choices, through my failure and my brokenness and the impact this has had on others in my life. Some how out of all of this I hope and trust that he can make beautiful things, that he can accomplish good in my life and the lives of my family. And I keep hoping and believing and trusting that he is not yet done with my daughter. Her journey has only begun and I intend to keep walking alongside her wherever it leads.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Power (and Abuse) of Words

Recently Rush Limbaugh, never one of my favorite people, stuck his foot deep down his throat with some comments he broadcast about Sandra Fluke after the latter had gone before a congressional committee to argue for the inclusion of birth control treatment in standard health insurance coverage. I don't intend to repeat his words here and extend their influence. You can easily find them on other sites. Many have responded to Limbaugh's words, expressing their outrage at his over-the-top and inappropriate comments. I like this particular response from Soraya Chemaly. Others have chosen to defend his freedom of speech or tried to raise the question of fairness, claiming that liberal commentators have not been taken to task when they have made inappropriate comments about conservative women. I have not been in the information loop until recently so cannot adequately comment on this latter claim, although many of the voices I have read acknowledge fully that outrage should be expressed in response to any speech that degrades a woman for being a woman.

At first I was not going to post anything about this controversy. I didn't want to give any further attention to Limbaugh, because that's what he seems to crave more than anything. Also, others have responded, probably better than I can. I thought at first that it would be best for women to respond because they are the ones under attack. But last night I realized that as a man I also need to raise my voice. We men need to state unequivocally that we stand with our sisters—fellow human beings—in decrying any speech that demeans them as women. Had Limbaugh used degrading terms against any ethnic group he would have been resoundingly pilloried and rightfully so. But because he denigrated a woman, we let it pass. It's a women's issue, after all.

No, it's not.

It's an issue of respect for one another as human beings. Whether we agree with Sandra Fluke's position or not, we owe her the honor of not being called a slut simply because she holds a certain opinion. This article by Chemaly really helped me understand the power of labeling a woman a slut. By his choice of words Limbaugh deliberately sought to marginalize Fluke and label her as an immoral person, one whose voice could be discounted and disregarded. This should not be.

I used to live in an Asian country where women were routinely denigrated by the men around them for any behaviour the men perceived as being immodest or inappropriate. A woman's reputation could be destroyed simply by the word of another, regardless of any real activity on her part. Her choice of clothing or a brief interaction, almost anything could be used against her. A woman in that culture must be constantly thinking about her reputation. What particularly saddened me though was the extent to which it was women themselves who used this slut-shaming technique to keep other women, particularly younger ones, in their proper cultural place. I thought that such labeling didn't occur in my own culture. Now I understand how wrong I was.

Not only am I troubled by Limbaugh's words, I'm even more disturbed by the lack of outcry by evangelical Christians. Their conservativism causes them to blindly support an ungodly man like Limbaugh or, at best, to remain silent. I understand, because I too had remained silent until now. As I said before though, even if someone disagrees with Fluke's perspective, that doesn't mean a person should remain silent when another person is being marginalized and dehumanized for expressing her perspective. We as Christians should be the first to stand up in defense of those who are being silenced. Unfortunately Christians, particularly conservative evangelical (is that redundant?) Christians, fail to place basic human, godly values above their own cultural biases. Rachel Held Evans does a great job in this article exploring what she sees as three key reasons for this support of Limbaugh and others like him. I think she's pinpointed some key issues.

Language is a powerful tool. As Chemaly points out in her article calling a woman a slut is a means to control her. In this article Dianna Anderson pointed out that there is no true equivalent term to describe a man, a word that succinctly denigrates a man's behaviour and his moral character, marginalizing and disempowering him in one simple term. Our words have power and when used as Limbaugh used his, they are a deadly weapon. We need to change the way we use our words and select them more carefully, not that we would never offend another person, but that we would not simplistically categorize and discount a person or group of people because they are of a particular gender, ethnic group, religion or anything else. We can disagree without dehumanizing our opponents. That's called civil discourse. It's also in keeping with recognizing the image of the divine in each human being.

I want to watch my own speech. While I cannot recall that I have deliberately called a woman a slut, neither can I say that I have never done so. In fact, if I haven't actually said it, I've probably thought it in response to the way a woman dresses or behaves. I may not approve of her clothing or behaviour, but I need to stop labeling her and categorizing her for this. My words have power and this unguy is going to wield that power more wisely and graciously.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Thoughts on Reading Velvet Elvis

I've heard a lot of buzz about Rob Bell, much of it negative and critical. Recently a video, whose link was sent out by a person I respect, denounced Bell in quite strong terms. Ironically this denunciation actually spurred me to go to the source myself. I had already read Bell's book Love Wins, but the video in question spoke more about his book Velvet Elvis, so I checked it out from the library and have been reading it over the last several days. (In general I think this is a good principle when you hear someone being criticized: go to the source and see for yourself. Even Bell advocates that you read his books critically, not accepting what he says without thought.)

Far from turning me off from Bell's thinking, reading his book has actually captivated me with it. I resonate with much of what he has to say. For today I want to focus on one particular aspect. In Velvet Elvis Bell writes:

God has an incredibly high view of people. God believes that people are capable of amazing things.”

This really resonated with me, largely because I have grown up in Christian circles where the primary message is in fact quite the opposite. In our efforts to help people understand the seriousness of their sin, I fear we have successfully communicated that humans are worthless and that God can hardly stand us. We are repulsive, loathsome beings. Despite all our words to the contrary about God's love for us, what we more often communicate is God's hatred and disgust for us. Sure, we couch it in terms of his loathing of sin, but in real terms I think many people end up understanding that God loathes us as people and as individuals.

I am not denying the seriousness or reality of sin. I am not denying that we as humans are inherently sinful and in need of grace. I am not denying the efficacy of God's redemption through Jesus Christ. But I really like Bell reminding us that God sees us quite differently, that he has redeemed us and when he looks upon us he sees us as righteous. Despite our assurances that God's grace is a free gift that cannot be earned, I think that we often indicate to people quite the opposite. We speak and act in such a way that those who have not experienced God's grace feel they must first get their act together and then they can be “worthy” of his grace. What's more, I think that most of us carry this feeling with us even after we have “received salvation.”

I think that I resonate so much with what Bell writes because, even after years of life as a follower of Jesus Christ, I still struggle with this basic identity issue: I don't think God really likes me. Because of this I constantly struggle with the feeling that I have to earn his favor. I have to please him in order for him to like, much less love me. Yes, I've read all the passages in the Bible about God's love. But the message about my worthlessness, failures, shortcomings and sinfulness have rooted themselves deep in my psyche and I am still, through the Holy Spirit, working to remove them and replace them with the truth of my identity in Christ.

Some would accuse Bell of compromising the Gospel. They might say that he ignores or denies the sinfulness of humanity. That's simply not true. He clearly acknowledges this reality. But he also strongly emphasizes an ever greater reality: that in Jesus Christ this sinfulness has been eradicated and we are made new people, here and now. Use the fancy term “justified” if you must, but Bell does a great job of getting beyond this legal terminology and arguing for a transformed existence, a transformed identity.

I don't need to hear more sermons about how I need to be more holy. I don't need to be told how I'm failing as a father or as a man of God. I don't need to be given still more high ideals to strive for, because I'm painfully aware of my failure to reach the ones I'm already aware of. But I sure wouldn't mind being reminded of who I already am in Christ. Bell writes:

The issue then isn't beating myself up over all of the things I am not doing or the things I am doing poorly; the issue is my learning who this person is who God keeps insisting I already am.” (emphasis Bell's)

Jesus came to set us free. Too often I think that what we call the Good News actually comes across more as bad news, as a message that enslaves rather than setting free. We strive so hard to convict people of their sin that we may in fact hinder people from realizing God's love for them. I think that Bell is trying hard to communicate the core truths of the Gospel to a society that has changed significantly over the past twenty years. For some people the traditional methods of evangelism and the traditional emphases on sin, guilt and justification may communicate the good news of life in Jesus. But to many these ideas do not resonate, so we need to explore new avenues and methods of communicating with them. Bell's style and his emphases may, for this reason, not sit well with some people, but I think he's on to something good and profound and fundamentally true.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Invest in Women

In honor of International Women's Day, I invite you to make a difference in the life of one or more women around the world. Begin with those closest to you, but then think big and consider how you could impact the life of a woman in a developing country. Lend all or part of a micro-loan to a woman struggling to grow a business through Kiva or Global Giving. Or sponsor a young woman through CompassionInternational and provide the help she needs to stay in school, complete her education and open up a future with more opportunities. Investing in women is investing in the health of society and what better day to start than this day when we celebrate women.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Feminism--It's not Just for Women

Tomorrow is International Women's Day, so let me begin by congratulating all the women I know on this, the one day of the year when we recognize and affirm you for being who you are. Let me also apologize for our failure to recognize and affirm you as women the remainder of the year. As I wrote on this day three years ago, some men might dream of a world without women. They might see this as a virtual paradise. More accurately, I think most men dream of a world in which women exist only to serve them and satisfy their needs and otherwise remain silent and unseen. In fact, that would describe our current world all too accurately. However, I would not want to live in such a world. A world without women would be a world without so much that enriches and enlivens us as humans and as men. It would be a sad, uninteresting and, unfortunately, probably a rather violent place.

In January I acknowledged myself as a feminist or, more accurately, as an awakening feminist. In acknowledging this I felt somewhat like one who is “coming-out,” because there still exists an enormous amount of shame and teasing for men who support the equality of women. Some see feminism as a curse of modern liberalism, not recognizing the significant effect that denying full equality to half of the human race has on our society and our world. Many think that feminism is only for and about women—men have no role to play here. As I wrote in February, I recognize more and more that my first role as a male feminist is to listen and learn and then to support and encourage the voices of the women who are speaking out. But feminism is not just for women. The equality of men and women is an issue for all of us and men not only have a role in advocating the equality of women, they also stand to benefit from it. This articleby Soraya Chemaly offers a good explanation of the need for male feminists—not because women are powerless without us men, but because we men hold the positions of privilege and power and are in the position to help bring about the needed changes in our society. Feminism is not just about women. It's about all of us, because we all are created equally in the image of God and we will all benefit the more we acknowledge and affirm that in practice. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Letting Go

Yesterday on her blog Elizabeth Esther wrote:

Sometimes I think I deserve a well-planned life. One with backup plans and contingency plans and no interruptions.”

I can relate well to her. I might not deserve such a life, but I certainly wish for one. I want a world in which everything is neat and orderly, where there's a place for everything and everything is in its place—speaking not only of the physical objects that make up my life. Life, at least for me, rarely if ever seems to cooperate with my plans.

In the oft-cited verse Jeremiah 29:11 God says:

I know the plans I have for you...plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.”

Encouraging words, but often they seem so far from the reality of daily life. We overlook or forget the context of these words—a letter written to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. I doubt that most of them had planned or expected to find themselves living there. They didn't want to be there. But God tells them to settle in and prepare for an extended stay. He even tells them to seek the peace and prosperity of the city where they now live—the city of their conquerors. And in the midst of this, he tells them that he knows his plans for them. I wonder how they felt when they received this message.

Last year I saw my life turned on its head. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly I had to leave the place I had been living for some time. I had to leave the work I was in, just as it seemed it was finally making some headway. I had to say good-bye to dear friends. Some would say I should have been delighted because I had to return to the land of my birth. Sure, this had some potential positives, but I lost all that had formed my identity. Thankfully I didn't go off as a prisoner in a train of captives, but the pain may have only been marginally less. I began a downward spiral into despair and discouragement.

As I struggled through this time of transition and loss, I kept trying to cling to bits and pieces of my former life. I didn't want to have to die to it all. But God kept pushing me. He was relentless. I'd surrender another piece and hope that it was the final one, only to find him pressing me to take the next step. I wrote about this in December, describing it as a process of de-formation. In January I reached the lowest point, lying awake several nights in a row, far away from my family and any comfort. (I was traveling on business at the time.) I let go of the last pieces of my earlier existence that I was still clinging to.

Since returning from that trip I feel like I have stepped out of the darkness into the light of a new day. Having released everything, having died to all that I held dear, I found a new freedom. I was holding on to what I wanted to do—things that I believed God wanted me to do, because at one point in time he had given me those tasks—and this kept me from letting him lead me in a new direction. I'm reminded again of a line from one of my favorite Michael Card songs:

We can't imagine the freedom we find from the things we leave behind.”

I still don't know clearly what the future holds. I'm exploring new avenues and new opportunities. Uncertainty seems to be the new normal for me. But I'm learning to live in faith, to walk day by day without backup and contingency plans, without feeling like I'm the one in control. Elizabeth Esther speaks of failing forward. I hear you, sister. Let's be bold in our failure and in the process find grace and the freedom to let God make us new.