Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

Reflections on first leg of the trip…

by , on
Dec 4, 2009

In a few minutes I’ll go to class and complete the studies in Genesis with students here, and then board the train for Augsburg, where I’ll spend the evening with friends before filming tomorrow at Dachau and sites in Munich.  Tomorrow night it’s on to Salzburg for supper with a friend and then Schladming, where I’ll be teaching I Corinthians next week.

The week here has been good with many students from Canada, a few from America, and the rest from places in Europe, Africa, and one student from Egypt.  I wish you could be with me for all these conversations, which range from the persecution of Christians in Egypt by Muslims, to the struggles of pastoring in rural Kenya, where drought and water problems have stretched the capacities of all the people, to the differences in health care systems and taxation between Germany and America.  I spoke with a German student who shared her grandfather’s recollections of fighting in WWII, and a story of how God spared his life during a bombing, reminding me that their were people of faith on both sides.  Last night I had supper with a friend and the whole time I was wishing I’d brought the video recorder with me.  We spoke of Hitler’s addiction to Theosophy, why Germany was vulnerable, and the profound effect Bonhoeffer had on Germany after his death.  We also spoke of the American addiction to success and the dangers of that, as he sees it encroaching on the church in Germany.

This travel, and these kinds of discussions are priceless to me for many reasons.  First, they remind of the gospel’s malleability.  It looks different in Germany, than Kenya, than Amsterdam, than Egypt, than France, than America, and that’s OK.  Second, I’m reminded of the danger we all face, of imposing our style of Christianity, with all our strengths and weaknesses, on other cultures.  It’s important to share the central themes: devotion to Christ, the nature of his work, our calling to allow His life to be born in us and expressed through us – and then let these themes take shape in various cultures.

I worry, though, that our American church is becoming fragmented along some very unhealthy lines, agreeing with some commentors on previous posts that some core doctrines are at risk of compromise by the emergent church.  At the same time, I’m concerned that the more conservative branches of our faith true are holding on the centrality of Christ and adding a bit of Americana to that, as if being pro-free market, and pro-war is somehow inherently Christian.  This is, in my opinion, not only nonsense…. it’s dangerous.

Tomorrow I’ll shoot some footage from Dachau, and in Munich, where a resistance movement to Hitler challenged Germany’s apathy.  I think there are lessons to be learned there… or at least some musings.  I won’t post, probably, until Sunday, because I’ll be travelling.

Cheers… In Christ

The Value of Ecumenism, or at least ‘getting along’

by , on
Dec 1, 2009

The school where I’m teaching this week is in the Bavarian region of Germany, a predominantly Catholic part of the country in contrast to the prevalence of Protestantism in the North. Both Protestant and Catholic claim to follow Jesus and declare without hesitation that “Jesus is Lord”. The meaning of the declaration, though, was sorely tested between the late 1920’s and the end of WWII in 1945, as Hitler rose to power by blending “God Words” with a call to nationalism in order to revive both faith and state. That he rose without substantive resistance in spite of his unabashed disdain for both the God of the Old Testament, and all Jews, is a study in itself, but not the point of this post.

My interest resides in those few who DID resist, because a careful look at the players reveals that they were thrown together from North and South, Catholic and Protestant, united in their conviction that actively standing against the raging tide of darkness was essential. There was of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant Pastor. And behind the scenes, when the training of pastors needed to go underground, the non-institutional ‘seminary’ led by Bonhoeffer was supported and hosted by a rich Prussian Heiress named Ruth Von Kleist. Bonhoeffer would eventually have a profound influence of some Catholics in the south who were part of a small, non-violent resistance movement consisting of young adults called “The White Rose”. In addition, the Catholic community would influence Bonhoeffer, offering him hospitality and fellowship at a monastery during his days in Munich.  Bonhoeffer would write during those days that he was humbled by their magnanimous and generous spirit, which led to his own musings on the need to work hard at recovering the unity of Christ’s body.

Another profound influence for the “White Rose” was the Catholic theologian, Carl Muth.  His publishing work had been destroyed by the Reich, but he continued to write, “in exile” in his small home on the outskirts of Munich, where these young people (made up of both Catholics and Protestants) came to glean from his wisdom, study, and find shelter in the midst of their own storms.  And who most profoundly influenced the Catholic Muth?  Protestant Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

Lessons learned?  I’m increasingly convinced that the true church neither resides within particular institutional walls, nor values much of what passes for theological discourse.   Within the various institutions, there will be those few who are passionate for “doing justice”, “loving mercy”, and “walking humbly with God”.  They’ll also be intent on the pursuit of “love from a pure heart, with a good conscience and a sincere faith”.  I say this because, while Catholics and Protestants in the established church were carrying on the very vital conversations about the nature of transubstantiation, and arguing about the role the human will plays in our salvation, six million Jews, along with thousands of Gypsies, mentally ill, physically deformed, and homosexuals, were mysteriously disappearing from the country, ultimately to be shot, gassed, or burnt in ovens.  Hitler didn’t give a damn about the established church because they collectively cowered under his threats, allowing themselves to be pushed into pietist irrelevance.  It was the others, the ecumenists residing on the margins, who were a threat to his house of cards.

Thank God there were those few who set aside the “morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language…” (I Timothy 6:4), choosing instead to stand for what matters.  Bonhoeffer, Muth, Ruth Von Kleist, Hans and Sophie School are the people I point to as my heroes, and they’re Protestants, and Catholics.

I pray to God that we learn from this because I see similarly destructive ‘in fighting’ unfolding in this age between the neo-Calvinists and the Emergent church.  But when darkness covers the world, I’m confident that there’ll be a few who will stop fighting each other long enough to stand together for what matters, and I pray I’ll be counted among them.

Children’s Rights… everywhere except here

by , on
Nov 20, 2009

Remember that I’m musing here, not preaching. The purpose of this blog, at least some of the time, is simply to incite discussion. That’s surely the case this time….

I’m driving up the writing cabin to work on my book project, listening to NPR as I park on the interstate during the end of rush hour. It’s here, about 30 miles north of Seattle, that I learn that November 19 is the 20th anniversary of “Convention on the Rights of the Child”, which is a UN declaration that seeks to hold nations accountable for providing fundamental rights to children. Child slavery, sexual exploitation, access to education, are a few of the named elements.

I didn’t even know about this Convention until I heard this piece. “Every nation in the UN has signed on” I hear. Then, before I have a chance to feel good, the commentator adds: “except two.” Then, while I’m wondering what kind of nations could possibly say no, I hear this: “The United States and Somalia are the only nations that have refused to ratify the convention.”

This morning, I decide to do a little research, and discover the following:

1. We’re in the company of a nation with one of the worst human rights records on the planets. That’s the fact. In my opinion, that we’re standing alone with Somalia should, at the very least, cause a little humble introspection. Maybe we should reconsider our position.

2. I discover that the US helped write the language for the charter, so isn’t necessarily opposed to the principles. Instead, there seems to be questions about whether the US would be sacrificing it’s sovereignty by allowing itself to be held accountable to other nations. My response: Isn’t this true of any treaty, signed at any time, with any nation? I know we sign other treaties, and certainly expect other nations to bow to our will (have you heard of our insistence that Iran release its nuclear waste? It’s in the news and their response is that this demand threatens their sovereignty). Do we expect others to sacrifice their sovereignty for the common good while we’re unwilling to do so? The sovereignty issue seems to me to be a ruse, though I’m open to further light.

3. Then I read this: Ratification of the UNCRC by the United States would require the U.S. governments to appear before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, a panel of child rights experts from around the world, every 5 years to explain their implementation of such issues as universal health insurance for all American children, currently a human right in all other western industrialized nation (Wikipedia). “Hmmm” I say to myself. “It appears that today’s news about health care has collided with a twenty year old refusal to ratify this treaty. Of course we can’t ratify it. If we did, we’d need to obey it. If we obeyed it, we’d need to make sure every child has access to health care. And that, as we’ve all come to learn, is something that lots of Americans don’t want.  Of course we’d never say it that way – we’d talk about how our system’s the best in the world, praise free markets, and point out our government’s failure to deliver mail without losing money.  But blow away the smoke and people opposed to public health care are forced to this:  if a child has no coverage, parents should need to choose between bankruptcy and care, if that’s even an option.  For many, of course, they just won’t go… until they go to emergency room with pneumonia – and by then it will be too late.  Deaths of children due to lack of health insurance number around 17000 a year according to conservative US News and World Report.

We Christians love protecting life in the womb. But as soon as you’re born, you’re on your own, or so it seems from my chair, as I observe the pro-life position. I’m pro-life myself, but happen to believe that it extends a bit further than a child’s day of birth, happen to believe, with the UN charter, that this child, who did nothing to inherit his/her parents wise or foolish choices, ought to have a chance to live by having education, water, and yes… even health care.

“Socialism!!” The cry is in my ears before I’ve even finished typing, let alone posting. So we, and our good friends in Somalia, refuse to sign the treaty, to which I say this:

“Happy Birthday Children’s Rights. I’m glad most of the world gets it. I hope someday we will too.”

Harvesters of Light

by , on
Nov 18, 2009

I’m in the midst of bringing my studies in Acts to a completion, and this last section, when Paul’s life shines so brightly, seems especially appropriate this time of year.  It’s the time of year when, especially up north, the light drops lower into the sky and the shadows are long.  Leaves have blown away and naked branches shake.  And here in raincity  we’ve the added beauty of clouds creating interplays of light and shadow in an infinite array of patterns.  It’s a remarkable time of year, a time when darkness and light seem to be at war.

Thankfully, we live with the confidence that in just a few short weeks the darkness, which has seemingly been getting the upper hand, will turn once again enter its annual season of defeat as light inevitably triumphs.  For some of us, the season is the most beautiful of all, not because we like the darkness so much, but because the darkness makes the little shards of light all the more poignant and powerful.  A single candle in my home office at 6:00PM in March?  Meaningless.  On November 17th?  Priceless.

If ours is an age of darkness, then, I’ll go on record as saying that it’s a great time be children of light, because the whole light and dark thing works, not only in the physical world, but in matters of the heart and spirit as well.  Ours has been described by many voices as a ‘new dark age‘.  The signs of darkness are seen more by absence than presence:  absence of initmacy, meaning, hope, beauty, love, trust, hope, integrity.  Evidences of the absence aren’t hard to find, whether one looks to our current wars and the pathologies that caused them, our current economic crises and the greed that got us there, or the crises within the many systems that are supposed undergird and sustain civilization, such as education, family, and the arts.  It’s a mess of darkness, no doubt, as someone else mused here.

Why the hope then?  Two reasons:  First, just like any autumn, the darkness creates both a longing for, and an awareness of the light. “The People who are Walking in Darkness have seen a Great Light” said the prophet, and God knows that the darkness is here now.  In a world of fanatic suicide bombers, terrorism, and militarism, acts of peace and love still happen, and they shine all the brighter for the context in which they appear.  Generosity shines in the midst of obscene greed.  Love for the least of these shines in the midst of a culture that worships youth and beauty.  It’s time to quit moaning about the darkness, and recognize these days for what they are:  moments when our calling as children of the light will stand out in stark contrast.

When people who are longing for light see light, they’ll turn to the light.  Thus we’d better not simply let our light shine, we’d better prepare to love and serve those who turn to the light in these days, and I’ve a feeling the harvest is just getting started.  Prepare?  Yes.  They’ll need places to sit in our churches, compelling worship they can understand, the Bible taught in terms that are simple, accessible, and applicable.  They’ll need to learn how to take up their own calling as harvesters of light, so that they can share let theirs shine too, in their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and wherever the Light sends them.

I’m hopeful for a second reason:  We believe that Light will triumph.  I’m looking out my office window right now as I write this in the late afternoon.   The darkness is winning, and will reign for about the next 15 hours; by December 21 it will reign for about 16 hours each night.  But then the light will triumph, the days inexorably lengthening as we who live here collectively lift our spirits, or feel them being lifted by the light.  This is the way it is.  This is the way it shall be.  Light will triumph fully, finally, over the darkness, as we read here.

Our calling, as I’ll share on Sunday, is rooted in our identity as ‘harvesters of light’, those who receive the harvest of light and hope that is found in Christ, so that we might share it during times of light famine.  I think about this calling every November.  I ask Christ that, rather than cursing the darkness with whining, bitterness, fear and paralysis of soul, I’ll be light, or at least light a candle of hope through my words and deeds, so that the light of Christ, which our world is longing for more than they know, might see; and turn; and live.  May this be our prayer…

What are some signs of light you’re seeing in the midst of these dark days?

“AND”: the importance of paradox to faith

by , on
Nov 3, 2009

Webster’s Dictionary defines paradox this way:  an argument that apparently derives self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises

Neat systems bother me.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s Calvinism or Arminianism, fundamentalism or liberalism, Catholicism or Protestantism.  All these constructs bother me for two reasons.  First, each system has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses.  Our role, isn’t to be fans of a system, but to be followers of Jesus, and this requires that at some level we be willing stand outside the systems and critique so that we can continue to be transformed.  Systems have a way of stagnating and eventually missing the point utterly. Just read church history.

Second, and this is the point of this post, systems often (though not always) seem to be an attempt to remove paradox from our faith declarations, which is supposed to make it more rational, more defendable, more believable.  This is rubbish, primarily because one can’t read the Bible and catch the grand themes without seeing that it’s as filled with paradox as yogurt is with bacteria.

Fully God and Fully Man – there are scriptures on both sides of this debate.  The early church though, was able to declare this paradox as orthodoxy.  Perhaps this is because they were living at a time in history when mystery was still acceptable, when everything wasn’t assessed by scientific method.

Living and Dying – “I die daily” says Paul, and of course Jesus says, “He who seeks to save his life shall lose it.  He who loses his life shall find it.”  The church embraced this paradox early too, perhaps because martrydom so quickly became a common experience.  These days in the west though, I’m suspicious that we give this a nod, but don’t wrestle fully with it’s implications.

Free and Chosen – I’m so tired of Calvinists telling me I’m chosen, but forgetting that I’m free.  Yes, I agree with my Calvinist friends:  I am chosen.  But Jesus stood up in the temple and said, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to me in drink…”  Did he mean any man, or was he lying?  He meant any man, because of course we read from Peter that “God is not willing that ANY should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  If I land squarely on the side of God’s election, and ignore free will, I must conclude that God has destined some for destruction.  “Ah” you say.  “He did destine some for destruction.  Read Romans 9.”  I have.  Read II Peter.  Paradox.

Weak and Strong – “When I am weak, then I am strong” was how Paul put it.  Only weak?  You’re paralyzed into depression and inactivity.  Only strong?  You’re filled with arrogant presumption and living in denial of your humanity.

Believing and Doubting – “I believe.  Help my unbelief.”  If Jesus were a modernist, he would have tried to pin the man down.  “Which is it sick man – belief or unbelief?  Are you in or out?”  This isn’t license for having weak faith.  It’s acknowledging the reality that, right in the midst of our faith, doubt can also reside.  John the Baptist, having been imprisoned, tells his disciples to ask Jesus if He’s the Messiah, or if John missed something.  Jesus tells the disciples the answer AND says that poor doubting John is the greatest man that ever lived.  If you’ve no room for doubt, no more questions, I fear you’ve stopped growing.  If you’ve no room for faith, nothing but questions, you’re not reading this anyway.

Rational and Mysterious – Yes there’s evidence for all this.  There’s history.  There are martyrs.  There are documents.  But come on:  the sun stood still.  Dead bodies were reconstituted, and all of them will be some day.  There’s a spirit world, unseen, affecting lives.  And none of this can be proven by the scientific method.  Reduce the faith to a set of provable propositions, and you’ve stripped it of not only it’s mystery, but it’s power.  Make it nothing but mystery, and you’ve stripped it of it’s knowability.

I have at least five more, but don’t want to bore you.  Feel free to share some other paradoxes in the comment section, and let me know your thoughts.  I want to hear your critiques – and I don’t want to hear them.

Lessons from Europe…

by , on
Oct 28, 2009

This November/December I’ll once again be spending some time in Germany and Austria, teaching at two different Bible Colleges.  During the trip this year, though, I hope to catalog some of the sites and history over there that have shaped my theology.  If you’ve read my blog for a little while, you know that some of my favorite inspirational martyrs are the young students who comprised the “White Rose” Fellowship in Germany.  I’m also a huge fan of Carl Muth, their mentor, a Catholic Priest who was banned from parish ministry and whose magazine was shut down as the Nazis sought though control throughout the land.  I’ll hope to send back some footage and post it here in December.

But this evening, as I’m preparing for this coming trip by re-reading some of these works and thinking about these people, I’ve been pondering the reality that there were some things about their particular manners of truth speaking that stand out as exemplary to me:

1. The spoke the particular truth that was needed for the moment –  They pulled the covers off the elephant in the room by telling people:  Germany is killing Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled.  The fury of nationalism had made people unwilling to see the heinous crimes that were being committed.  Let’s note that it would be easy to turn one’s head.  The new leader had created jobs, a new pride of country in the wake of a disastrous WWI and subsequent treaty, and a grand vision of a pure and strong race who could, and would rule the world.  What’s not to like after all the defeat, and inflation, and unemployment?  The fact is many of us would be seduced.

But the more significant fact is that most people who were seduced recited the Apostle’s Creed on Sundays and sang hymns.  Lutheran or Catholic, it matters not.  They proclaimed to know Christ – while they knew of, or actively participated in sending Jews to camps and, ultimately, ovens.

This little bit of history keeps me awake at night.  What truths are we, am I, failing to see, or seeing, failing to declare?

Lord, apart from your revelation, we all see through a glass darkly, picking and choosing the issues to address that are convenient rather than important.  Thank you for the example of those who’ve gone before me who were granted the clarity to see the sins of their day, and to name them with courage.  Grant us the same through your spirit.

2. The truth they spoke was resisted by many church going people who recited, and believed, the Apostle’s Creed

This also keeps me awake sometimes because history teaches us that being in church puts me on neither the right nor wrong side of God’s ethical fence.

It scares me to think that any of us should be found working hard to protect some certain things while missing the real important things.  This is exactly what happened in Germany.  So, for example, what if we’re fighting for inerrancy, but ignoring homelessness.  What if we’re fighting for a certain definition of marriage, but doing nothing about the horrific divorce rate?  What if we’re strong on protecting life in the womb, but once the baby is born, we leave them to fight in our Darwinian system.  No health care?  That’s their problem!

Lord you know that your church is divided into conservative and liberal camps, postmodern and neo-Calvinist.  I fear we’re all in danger of missing important truths because of these schisms.  Give us the humility to listen and learn from each other, rather than simply label and accuse.  But as well, give us the boldness of conviction to know exactly when and where to stand with boldness and unyielding courage.

3. They were willing to pay the price for their convictions

Like Stephen, John the Baptist, Isaiah, and Peter, the White Rose students paid for their convictions with their lives.  I love their robust faith.  I love their love of life.  But I love, most of all, that they “love not their lives unto death” and so are counted among the great faithful saints who paid for their convictions with their blood.

The fear of man is snare is what you’ve told us Lord.  Forgive us our careful living, thinking more of consequences than convictions.  Banish from us any consideration other than this one thing:  Lord, what do you want?  And we’ll accept the consequences of our actions.

Dancing the Sabbath in 6/7 time

by , on
Aug 8, 2009

I’m privileged to teach in Europe every year for a week or two. Europe, you know, is what the Republican party is afraid we’re becoming if we let everybody have access to health care. It’s the “post Christian” culture that so many are afraid we’ll become if we don’t vote properly. I’m not certain what “becoming like Europe means”… I know it means that we’ll spend less on health care per capita while our mortality rates will drop and our longevity rates will rise. I know it means that church bells will ring at the beginning, middle, and end of each day, along with each hour. I know it means that public schools will celebrate “prayer day” where they learn about prayer in history, and spend time actually praying. I know it means that there’ll be less access to AK47s and other rapid assault rifles for common citizens, and that the rates for homocides will be lower, as will the rate of incarceration. I know it means a barista won’t lose their home because they need open heart surgery. I know all this… I just fail to see what everyone’s frightened about.

However, rather than tackle the whole “socialist, church bells, prayer day, gun control” culture, I’d like to just talk about the Sabbath, which is practiced far better in Europe than it is here. Our culture is open for business 24/7. As a result, we’ve collectively lost our sense of rhythm, and this has serious consequences:

1. Because shops are open 7 days a week, we buy! This piece of our culture has the effect of enabling our propensity to wear ourselves out. In contrast, only activities that enhance leisure and relationship building (cafes, ski areas) are open on Sundays in the places I travel in Europe.

2. Because we buy, we do stuff, and the stuff we do often has the effect of displacing the leisure of eating a meal, slowly, with good friends, good wine, good conversation. Instead we’re painting the fence, or cleaning the house, or whatever.

3. These things we do, combined with our love of TV, are effecting our relational capacity. A friend from Europe visited some college students here in the states and found their capacity for lingering conversation lacking, as they preferred, instead to play wii or watch movies.

Of course these are generalizations. Of course there are exceptions. Still, I’d argue that we need to learn from our European friends, how to dance to the rhythm of 6/7 time. Work hard six days a week, and then spend a day investing in rest, restoration, recovery, relationship, recreation, receiving all of it as the gift God intended.

We surely have different vestiges of our Christian heritage more prominent in our culture than our European friends have, but we both have these ‘hangovers’ from the Reformation (good hangovers… if ever there could be such a thing). It’s high time we acknowledged that, maybe they’re onto something with this Sabbath thing, and we learn from them. We might not be able to change the culture at large, but surely we can march to a different drummer ourselves can’t we?

Have friends over for a meal
Sleep in
Worship
Play music with companions
Do something with your spouse: take a bath together, go for a hike, read aloud o each other

In short, make one day different, a day when you quit fighting the battle for survival, and simply enjoy the relationships, food, creation, health, that God has placed on your plate right now. Here’s a book that might help get you started… and good Sabbath to you.

questions…bridges…life

by , on
Aug 8, 2009

Welcome…

After blogging for years over at blogspot (where you can find all the old stuff about movies, sexuality, politics, faith, doubt, Iran, Iraq, money, sleep, books, mountains, coffee… it’s all there if you nose around long enough), I’m moving over here to a different site, in hopes of focusing my thoughts and creativity a bit, trimming my efforts down to address three things:

1. Questions – I’m a pastor, and so I get real questions all the time.  “Why are we on the brink of bankruptcy after all these years of faithfully serving God?”  “Where the hell was God when my husband ran over our three year old daughter?”  “What’s wrong with a little oral sex among friends?”  “How can I make Bible reading less boring?”  “Why am I so bothered by Christian’s snappy answers?”  “How do I know that I’m believing truth and not somebody’s fable?” and many more.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, or even most of the answers, because if there’s anything I despise, it’s arrogance born of premature conclusions.  But I do have thoughts, because I’m equally suspicious of the postmodern notion that we’re awash in an epistemological storm that is sinking all convictions.  I don’t buy it.    As a result,  I have thoughts, and probably more questions, and some arrows to point the enquirer in what I hope is good direction.

At other times, I’ll post because I have questions and I’m looking for your input.  Thanks, in advance, for your help.

Bridges… I think it was Thomas Merton who talked about having a Bible in one hand, and the Chicago Times in another.   He saw the task of the priest as that of mediator, standing between the two worlds.  I love that task, because I love this world and the God who made it.   This world’s food, art, music, politic, ethic, economic system(s), recreation, relational angst, and everything else, seems to provide insights and windows into the God who so often appears to be invisibly present, right in the midst of it all.  I like to build bridges between this God and the beautiful yet broken world this God made.

Life… There are issues and observations, too many to mention, that just seem to come up in daily living.  I’ll write about them if it appears that they might be helpful in some small way.  The topics could range wildly, from coffee and cooking, to sexuality and sunsets.  I think God cares about all of it, wants all of it shot through with His glory, and it interested in showing us the way there.

Welcome.  I hope you’ll join me often.