Saturday, December 15, 2012

Graduation Day Prayer

I was asked to give the invocation for the Judson University 10 AM graduation service. At first I was going to pray extemporaneously, but after thinking of the tragedy in Connecticut yesterday, I felt that moment should be lifted up in our community. I decided to take a moment and write out my prayer.

Kind and Gracious God,

We come to you today in a time of celebration in the middle of a season of celebration. We are grateful for these times in life when you remind us that there is a time for joy and a time to laugh. But, we are also reminded after the events of yesterday, that today is not a day of joy for everyone.

We want to offer up to you the community in Connecticut that experienced such terrible loss. We pray your grace showers down on those for whom today is a time to weep and a time to mourn. We pray that children and adults whose lives are forever changed find comfort.

In these times of tragedy, we seek answers for the unanswerable and try to make sense of the senseless. We look to the hills and wonder where our help comes from. Help us to remember that our help come from the Lord God, the maker of heaven and earth. Help us to remember that you bring Creation from Chaos; you bring Resurrection from Death; and you bring light to dispel the darkness.

We pray, O God, that Judson University continues to be a beacon of your light into the darkness of this world. We pray for the graduates that we send forth today. We honor their hard work. We celebrate their accomplishments, and we trust them to your care as we send them forward.

We pray that they take your light to fight back the darkness of this world. We pray that they are your hands and feet, and we pray that they are walking testimonies to your miraculous power to give hope to the hopeless.

We pray for this time as we honor them. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and Redeemer, 



Wednesday, July 4, 2012

God Blessed America, Make Me a Blessing

On this July 4th, I was thinking of all the ways that God has blessed this country. We have been a country of hard workers and great thinkers, and God has blessed that. We split the atom. We went to the moon. We said "Slavery is wrong!" though we still bear the scars of that commitment. We said, "It is wrong to judge a person by the color of their skin," and we still try to live up to that ideal.

I know I feel blessed to have been born in this country and in a system which gave me opportunities. I wanted to join in the chorus of "God Bless America" today, but I want to make it more specific. You see, the other night, I watched the Disney movie "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with my boys for the first time. It sounds a little over-protective, I am sure, but the more adult themes in that movie made me wait until they were older to show it to them. Now, 11 & 13, we sat and enjoyed what is probably my favorite animated Disney movie. As we listened to Esmerelda's song, "God Help the Outcasts," I watched as the boys were moved (and even a little convicted) by her prayer.
"God help the outcasts, hungry from birth. Show them the mercy they don't find on earth. God help my people. We look to You still. God help the outcasts or nobody will."
Then the parishoners sing: 
 "I ask for wealth. I ask for fame. I ask for glory to shine on my name. I ask for love I can posess. I ask for God and His angels to bless me."
Esmerelda responds:
"I ask for nothing I can get by, but I know so many less lucky than I. Please help my people, the poor and downtrod. I thought we all were the children of God."
While she was singing, Thomas turned to me and said, "I bet she's the one God heard. Not those other prayers." I was grateful he could tell a good prayer from a bad one, and as I reflected on the national prayer that will be invoked numerous times today, "God Bless America," I wanted to make my prayer more targeted today:
  • God bless the one in five children in America born into poverty, without the opportunities I have been given. Please bless them God.
  • God bless the eight out of 1000 families in America who lost a child under 5. Please God bless them.
  • God bless the 6.7 million Americans in prison. Help them find rehabilitation. Help them find healing. Help them find you. God bless them.
  • God bless the 3.5 million Americans who will experience homelessness this year. God grant them a home. God bless them.
  • God bless the nearly 50 million Americans who experience hunger. Grant them daily bread. God bless them.
  • God bless those Americans who are absent due to war. May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Grant us peace, O God. God bless them.
  • God bless the children who have absent parents due to war (whether that absence be temporary or permanent). God grant them your presence. God bless them 
Dear God, for me and those blessed like me, we can get by. I pray you give us the wisdom and the courage to use the blessings from you and to be your blessing in these needs and those I didn't think of today. Thank you for this country. Thank you for the rich blessings you have poured out on it for nearly two and a half centuries. You have blessed us. Please make us a blessing. Amen.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Four Books that Changed My Life, Episode 4: The Politics of Jesus

To this point, my list of books includes one book that is a feminist reading of the Old Testament and one book that would be a radically new understanding of prophetic literature. I suppose I have saved the most controversial for last. 

John Howard Yoder's, The Politics of Jesus is the most theological read of the four books that changed my life, but in some ways, it's the most practical. Yoder sets out to develop an ethic based on a radical new understanding of the life of Jesus in the New Testament. Yoder would likely say it's more a rediscovery of exactly who Jesus was. Through his careful reading of the New Testament with special emphasis on Luke, Yoder shows that Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition. Jesus is a counter-cultural prophet who articulates a new worldview--the kingdom of God. People who have citizenship in the Kingdom of God have lives and ethics that look different from the rest of the world.

Like most American Christians. I grew up in a tradition that in practice saw the Beatitudes as an eschatological ideal. The Beatitudes were what would happen in heaven when humanity is finally and perfectly reconciled to God. When I read the Politics of Jesus, I found that Yoder actually expected Christians to be influenced by the life of Jesus in the here, not just the hereafter. Yoder felt that if Christians really believe that Jesus was fully human then Jesus is the model for all humans. Jesus shows Christians what is expected and what is possible. Christians must love their enemies. They must turn the other cheek. They must pray for those who persecute them. Yoder took the Bible seriously, and he took the life of Christ seriously. When faced with that, I had to listen to what he had to say. Yoder (a Mennonite by tradition) carefully laid out the inescapable reality for me...violence in defense of justice is not the call of Christ. Yoder made pacifism cool again. It had been cool for the centuries prior to Constantine but wasn't really mainstream after 325 CE.

Ultimately, John Howard Yoder confronted me with one simple truth, if I take seriously the call to be like Jesus, then I must do what Jesus did and I must do what Jesus said. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, and when he was beaten, that's exactly what he did. Jesus said to love your enemies, and when he was crucified, that's what he did. Jesus said to lay down your life for your friends, and that's what he did.

If I take seriously what Jesus said--and I take seriously what Jesus did--and I believe I am called to be like Jesus, I have no choice but to be a pacifist. 

When students find out I am a pacifist, they get confused. Students usually assume that I'm a pacifist because I want to be or that a pacifist or because I believe it's an effective method for social change. Certainly, Martin Luther King and Gandhi have shown us that pacifism can be an effective means for social change. Ultimately, however, that's not the reason that I'm a pacifist. John Howard Yoder showed me that if I want to be like Jesus, violence in defense of justice is not a position I can defend from the Bible.

Too often pacifism was/is equated with passivism. Yoder also made clear that living a life like Jesus is also not an excuse for inaction. Yoder argued for a radically active pacifism--a pacifism that works for the kingdom of God in this world--a pacifism that stands against injustice. For Yoder, Christlike pacifism loves its neighbor and defends its neighbor. It is willing to give its life for a friend. It is NOT the passive Christians who use their Christianity as an excuse to allow atrocities to take place. 

While Yoder had some difficulties in his personal life, no one can dispute he was a brilliant thinker and careful exegete. And I am not the same for reading his work.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Four Books that Changed My Life, Episode 3: The Prophetic Imagination

I wonder how many students have had this experience. You encounter an author or idea and as you read the book, you immediately disagree. Clearly, this individual is wrong. Clearly, they don't see the world the way you do. Clearly, they aren't as enlightened.

Then you realize that their argument makes logical sense, answers questions you're position didn't, and seems to better fit the acknowledged facts. Soon, you move from skeptic to apologist--from doubter to disciple. That summarizes my experience with Walter Brueggemann.

Fortunately, I had worked through my struggles when I encountered The Prophetic Imagination. It came in a time when I was ready to hear it, and it forever changed the way I think about prophets.

"Prophets" and "prophecy" are concepts that can provoke strong reactions in contemporary Christianity. I know Christians who argue that it is a spiritual gift that existed in the early church but no longer is relevant. And I know Christians who argue that it is an absolutely necessary spiritual gift that it is accessible to every Christian who will take the time to be open to it. Part of our difficulty is probably vocabulary. I am not 100% sure that the gift of prophecy spoken of on and after Pentecost is exactly the same kind of "prophecy" that is spoken of in the Hebrew Bible. I don't think that what people often call "prophecy" in contemporary settings is always the same "prophecy" of Amos and Jeremiah.

Brueggemann is approaching "prophets" clearly from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible. These prophets care far more about the immediate needs of the people than the distant future. These prophets shout at the establishment. They are heretical by suggesting that God doesn't care about sacrifices (Amos 5, Micah 6). They are heretical by marrying pagan prostitutes (Hosea 1-3). They are treasoness by suggesting that God is on the side of the Babylonians and is using Nebuchadnezzar for divine purpose, rather than the "chosen" people of Judah (Jeremiah 25:9). Society sees them as odd--for eating scrolls (Ezekiel), preaching naked for three years (Isaiah 20), or marrying prostitutes. But always, these prophets are working for God's purposes in this world. They fight against government and cultural appropriation of faith concerns to their own purposes.

They don't just criticize, however. In the Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann shows how prophets must be equal parts critics of culture and energizers of faith. They look like crazy outcasts--contrarians who rail against the accepted static faith, but their angst doesn't come simply from observing the imperfections in this world. Their angst comes from frustration. In the musical 1776, John Adams stands at the front of Independence Hall after the southern delegates have walked out over the issue of slavery, and he sings in frustration, "Does anybody see what I see?!" Prophets understand this frustration. Prophets are "cursed" with the ability to see what is possible AND the ability to see what is. They see what the world would be like if God's purposes were manifest. They see the potential this world possesses, and they see us squander it. So the prophets do criticize, but part of the message of all the prophets is always hope. They give us a vision of what happens when we don't squander our potential.  The last word of a prophet is always an oracle which shows God's purposes realized in the world. 

I once heard Brueggemann say that no one REALLY wants to be a prophet. They are ostracized and often killed. He felt it was aiming high for followers of God to aspire to be scribes--to be willing to tell the story well. Performing the story was a little much to ask. Even so, the Prophetic Imagination inspired me to be more aware of prophets in the world around me, and it inspired me to be more prophetic in the way I live...even if it makes me a little weird. I'm in good company.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Four Books that Changed My Life, Episode 2: Texts of Terror

I come from a pretty conservative faith background. I was raised in THE Southern Baptist Church on the south side of Detroit. I went to my share of Vacation Bible Schools (actually more than my share, but that's another story). I was active in youth group and summer missions and Baptist Student Union. So, when I got to grad school and had to read Phyllis Trible's Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative for a class, I was scared.

I wasn't scared by the "terror" part. I was scared by the "feminist" part. I came to grad school with a conservative world-view: theologically and politically. A "feminist" anything would make me nervous. A "feminist" biblical interpretation? Well, what could be more threatening and dangerous? Obviously, my grad school professors were trying to corrupt me...brain-wash me. They were trying to turn me into some left-wing, tree-hugging, granola-eating, liberal who denies Jesus even existed (I wish that was hyperbole. But those really were my fears.).

Fortunately, my desire for academic success and my curiousity overcame my fear, and I read the book. Then a funny thing happened. I liked it. Actually, I loved it! It wasn't scary at all. It wasn't "liberal" at all. In fact, it was carefully biblical. As I turned the pages, I actually said out loud, "Wow. I'm a feminist. I had no idea."

Trible wasn't hostile to the faith or to the text. She was incredibly respectful of the text. As someone from a denomination that claims to prioritize the biblical text, that resonated with me. I appreciated her thorough and textual perspective.

She walked the reader through four stories of women in the Old Testament whose terrible stories are too often overlooked, and she showed how those terrible, disturbing stories point to another terrible, disturbing story in the New Testament (you know...the one that led to the cross). Trible showed me how Hagar, David's daughter Tamar, Jephthah's daughter, and the Levite's concubine show a faith we later see in Christ. She showed me that close readings of the text are good things. She showed me that I needed to improve my skill reading Hebrew. She showed me that "feminist" isn't evil. In fact...sometimes..."feminist" is biblical. She showed me how I was bringing my presuppositions to my interpretation, and she helped me shed some of those.

I owe Trible a great debt. While I don't do feminist hermeneutics, she has shaped my research agenda. I strive to be thorough and textual in my own readings. I strive to be sensitive to linguistic elements in the text. I strive to not allow my cultural presuppositions to the creep into my interpretations. And I hope that I am better at not judging a book by its cover.

I also hope I write a book this good someday.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Four Books that Changed My Life, Episode 1:Lament for a Son

The past few months I have mentioned "Four Books that Changed my Life" in a variety of contexts. It seemed logical for me to take a minute to say a word or two (or four) about these books that have had such a profound impact on me.

The first book is the actually the last one that I read. Nicholas Wolterstorff's Lament for a Son.

I first discovered this text when Cindy was in graduate school at Truett Seminary in Waco. Wolterstorff is a brilliant thinker and has several compelling works on social justice, education, and even art. Lament for a Son, however, is a much more personal text. After losing his adult son in a climbing accident in Europe, Wolterstorff journalled his grief experience. A trained theologian and philosopher, Wolterstorff journalled his struggles with God and his struggles with humanity after the tragedy. That journal later became the basis for Lament for a Son.

It is a powerfully honest text. It is a text that reveals a father who is not in search of answers, but rather, in search of community. It is a text that shows a man who doesn't want practiced, well-rehearsed, canned, ministerial answers, but someone who will practice a ministry of presence.

I discovered in this book an honest quality of prayer that I too often lack and an honesty that is all to present in the Bible (I am always troubled when ideas that are so novel to me turn out to be so biblical). Practiced piety and rehearsed prayers are comfortable. In Wolterstorff, I found a man willing to take who he was was, where he was to the divine--even when "who he was" was angry, and "where he was" was a valley of deepest darkness--even when "who he was, where he was" was uncomfortable for those around.

Though certainly sad, Lament isn't hopeless. Like the laments of the psalms, Lament for a Son has its moments of hope. I found hope in two places. First, this book taught me that "lament" is worship. I shouldn't have been surprised by that. By some counts, half of the hymns of ancient Israel (in the book of Psalms) contain lament characteristics. Israel knew that life in this world will bring humanity to cry out, and those cries needed to be taken to the divine.

The second hopeful lesson from the book was Wolterstorff's willingness to authentically welcome us into his grief and his invitiation to join him as he continued to wrestle in grief. He is willing to lay his soul bear and invite ministry and community. His humility, his willingness to be low and accept ministry truly inspires me.

Its discussion of grief and faith goes beyond just the loss of a son. It speaks to grief in a number of settings. Everyone who has been sad and angry or confused should read this book.  I joke that this book has become a track for me. I recommend it, and I hand out my personal copies. I just received my 10-12th (lost count) copy in the mail last week.

It is short, deep, well-written, relevant...and it changed my life.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Return to Blogging: Debriefing Lawndale

It's funny. You always think you will blog more than you actually do. People have said, "To blog regularly, sometimes you need to have something to say, and sometimes you just have to say something." Personally, I just want to have something to say.
My plan was to blog a little about my Lawndale through the fall semester, but of course, life got in the way. So I thought I would make my first 2012 blog a debriefing about last semester.

Simply put: Lawndale was a transforming experience. I did enter into a different culture, but I found found brothers and sisters. I wondered if my jokes would work. They much as they work anytime. I wondered if my lectures would resonate. Boy did they. And like most good teaching experiences, I learned more than they did. It was a true intercultural experience. I shared from my culture. They shared from their varied culture. We shared with each other. It was affirming. It was challenging. It was the body of Christ.

What did I learn?

  1. People are People. Everywhere.
  2. People who live just 40 miles away from me, live in a completely different world.
  3. I discovered just how much energy I spend trying to get students to care. I discovered this because my Lawndale class cared so passionately and so deeply about everything we were talking about, I didn't have work very hard. The wanted to soak up any information I could give. The first night we went 15 minutes over as they continued to ask interpretive and clarifying questions. I finally said, "It's 10:15 PM! I have to go home!"
  4. I learned that I have brothers and sisters in Christ in a place I never knew about one year ago.
  5. Coach is shorter than I had pictured after hearing the stories.
  6. Lou Malnati's is the best pizza in Chicago.
  7. I learned how important the story of Job is to the African-American church.
  8. I learned that I have a lot to learn about the body of Christ.

Unfortunately, I still haven't had a chance to worship with them on Sundays. My interim responsibilities haven't allowed me to take a week off. But it won't last forever, and I look forward to worshipping with my new friends. Thank you, with all love, thank you: Phil, J.B., "Donny," Pat, Tyone, Joey, Linda, Jose, and Theresa. Thanks to Northern Seminary for giving me a chance to stretch myself. Thanks be to God for this oasis on the west side.

Oh, one more thing I forgot to mention that I learned: The "Lawndale Miracle" is real.

"I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now, my eyes have seen you."