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

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

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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?

When walls fall down… lessons from Berlin

by , on
Nov 10, 2009

We had a German student staying at our house twenty years ago this week and together watched the stunning news out of Berlin, as people armed with nothing more than hammers and picks dismantled the wall between east and west.  We were stunned then and, as the subsequent weeks unfolded, even more so as nation after nation in Eastern Europe declared their freedom from the totalitarianism of the Soviet machine.  I was privileged to travel through east Germany shortly after the wall had fallen and the east had opened.  At the time the poverty was still palpable, evident in everything from food to architecture.  Things are different now, where Berlin offers all the evidence of upward mobility and freedom, as people stand in line for lattes and the landscape rises with some of the most progressive architecture in the world.

As I look back on both the opening up of Eastern Europe, there are lessons to be learned:

1. Faith spoke to oppression then – it had better continue to do so now. The Polish Pope’s visit to his homeland was just one of numerous instances of faith, which totalitarianism had tried so hard to keep in the grave, resurrected.  The events of Timasora in Romania were equally powerful.  In a remarkable convergence of circumstances that can only, retrospectively, be seen as the sovereign hand of God at work, Christ followers put their lives on the line in pursuit of liberty, and turned the tide of history.

The church hasn’t always been so bold, or so right.  I hope and pray that we can learn from the example of our friends in the faith from two decades ago, and that we will stand up to oppression in all forms, including human trafficking, and the reality that infant’s lives are snuffed out without ever seeing the light of day.  I’m asking myself what my role is in standing up against oppression, praying for both eyes to see and strength to obey.

2. Democracy and Capitalism aren’t magic pills – It was thought that the demise of communism and moves to democracy would, in and of themselves, lead cultures and nations to prosperity.  The results, however, have been spotty.  The reunification of East and West Germany was perhaps the easiest and most successful transition but they had the advantage of an existing infrastructure into which the east could be assimilated.  Even there it was hard.  The rest of eastern Europe has not been so fortunate.

The reality is that democracy and capitalism work only to the extent that there are some inherent moral underpinnings to a culture.  Without these foundations, the freedoms of these systems became a petri dish in which greed, corruption, and graft will grow unchecked.  We see this throughout eastern Europe to this day, which is why my friend in Romania is trying to mentor an emerging generation of cultural leaders, so that they’re rooted and grounded in Christ.

We need to learn from this, because though the clothing is different, the obscene bonuses offered wall street and banking execs in the wake of their greedy behavior in indicative of the reality that we too are losing our way.  Capitalism in an amoral society necessarily leads to corruption and oppression.  It’s happening everywhere these days, because when people reject Christ, sins aren’t only sexual, they’re economic, as you can discover here.

3. God is surprising us… Nobody saw it coming, including think tanks everywhere, and the CIA.  I look back on that week in November 1989 with great fondness, because the relationships that began that week, opened up opportunities for me to travel and teaching all over the world, and learning about how God is at work in various cultures has shaped my theology more profoundly than any other element.   I also look back fondly because that week, as my German friend had tears in her eyes, hopeful that she might finally meet relatives her were on ‘the other side’, I realized that when God’s ready to move on something, He moves.  Psalm 2 says that God laughs at the raging schemes of humanity when we assert that ‘our will be done’.  He’ll allow it, but not forever.

That week gave strengthened my faith, giving me the confidence to believe that God is moving in human history.  Subsequent to those days there have been terrible wars, Genocides, and acts of terror, reminders that humanity is still raging against God’s rule.  But the day will come when all the dividing walls will fall.  May we embody the hope that certain future; right here; right now.

O Lord Christ…

Thank you for the reminders in history that you are on the move.  Thank you that you use people to bring slices of hope and liberty into the world, foretastes of your full reign.  Make us such people; people of courage and sacrifice, generosity and integrity, that the world might see and know foretastes of your future and certain reign.  Thank you for the ‘glimpses of glory’ that come about when walls fall down.  Give us the grace to work with you in knocking more down, all around us, today and everyday.

Amen.

Strange Juxtapositions

by , on
Nov 6, 2009

The room from which I’m writing right now in Canada looks south.  The beauty out the bay window is more than stunning; the beauty almost makes me ache.  Crisp golden leaves dancing in the wind as clouds envelope Vancouver island to the east, and waves whitecap the sound, while the other sound is rain hitting the window.

Then I open my computer to post, and right after I’m finished posting about his beauty, and the good God behind it, I read the news of the shootings at Fort Hood.  I don’t know details, other than twelve dead, but I’m shaken from this isolated island of peace and sanity, reminded that creation groans, and that darkened hearts open fire.  I won’t go into a tirade about war because I happen to believe there’s a time and place for everything (Ecclesiastes 3), but I’ll say this much:  Behind the curtain of patriotism, and behind the bravado of ‘will to win’ and all that entails, men and women are walking through hell for this ‘objective’.  I don’t know answers, so don’t misread me.  I’m not sitting in judgement on our previous president or our present one.  But my God… we need wisdom, and even more important than that, we need the humility to recognize the we need wisdom.

Where does this humility come from?  It comes from seeing.  I hope, I pray, our leaders will look hard; hard enough to see what they don’t know.  Only then will they look for new wisdom, and I thoroughly believe that it’s the new wisdom, which isn’t really new at all, that we need as a nation right now – God help us.  Maranatha.

It’s still lovely outside – but this juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy?  I want to close the blinds OR turn off the news.  And yet, this is our world, and I pray we’ll learn to live here, better and better.

PLEASE POST YOUR PRAYERS….

“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.

U2 and the Unfashionable Cross

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Oct 28, 2009

It seems like everyone I know has been to, or is going to, hear u2 live in October.  They’re out on the west coast, doing a tour and so Christians between 20 and 40 are making the pilgrimage.  Before I continue, I’ll offer the caveat that I love u2.  I just returned from running stairs and Bono was my companion because, after the 10th set of sprints it’s true:  I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Their music, lyrics, and leverging of fame for social good are all inspiring and exemplery.  Still….

My concern resides in our age old tendency to reshape the gospel so that it matches our own personal ideals and passions, with the result that we create a mythical moral high ground to stand on, and thus stop growing.  Right now social justice is fashionable.  There’s good reason for this, and it’s a welcome swing of the pendulum from the old days, when missionaries would (at least according to missiological legend) handed out tape recorders, the Bible on tape, and tracts, before handing out food, “just in case someone perishes without knowing Christ.”  We’ve come a long way from that, but just as that was fashionable then, wells in Africa are fashionable now.

The risk we run, with any fashionable expression of the gospel, isn’t that it becomes entirely untrue, but that it becomes a distortion.  We might, for example, consider ourselves exemplary Christians because we have joined the One campaign, sponsor a child with World Vision, and skip lattes on Fridays, giving the money to economic development work in Africa instead.  It’s all cool, all popular, and has every risk of being cross-less, both in the sense that Jesus is moved from the center to the margins, AND in the sense that we’ve no practical expressions of self-denial.  I’ll explain both:

1. Jesus moved to the margins simply means that we take St. Francis word literally, to a fault.  He’s the guy who said, “preach always, use words only when necessary”.  I always want to add a third phrase to his timely remarks:  “…and words will usually be necessary”.  This is because everything we do, we do supposedly as a means of heralding the arrival of a soon to come new government, with the new reign of a new king.  How strange would it be to bring the ethics of the new king, and the blessings, but conspicuously, even intentionally ignore the CENTRALITY of that King’s presence as the source of all hope.  And yet this seems to happen all the time in the new and fashionable social gospel.

2. The cross lacking IN us means that we’re running the risk of defining the outworking of the gospel in terms of things we’d do anyway.  “Sure, I’ll sponsor a child, buy fair trade coffee…”  While that’s great, and fits in well with U2’s theology, what’s missing is the reality that Jesus will also ask of each of us, in specific ways, acts of self-denial.  Maybe our sexual ethic will need to change.  Maybe he’ll ask us to not just write a check, but move to Africa, or the inner-city, or South Dakota, and His calling doesn’t align with our passions.  The overwhelming testimony of scripture is that Christ is seen most clearly when we lose something.  Moses leaves the desert to follow God’s calling.  Peter leaves his nets.  Paul subjects his will to God’s and changes his missionary strategy.  People died for this, as I wrote last night, and it’s the self-denial piece that sets this apart from fashionably cool social justice.  Jesus said it pretty clearly:  “unless you deny yourself and take up YOUR cross and follow, you can’t be my disciple”

We like to talk about passion, justice, culture, relevance.  It’s the stuff, not only of Christian magazines and web-sites, but of billion dollar bands.  But the cross?  Other than the one’s hanging around our necks, I fear it’s fallen on hard times, both as a central message, and as an existential necessity for we who claim to be disciples.

That’s all… except to say that Joshua Tree is still my favorite.

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.

Marriage: Away it goes

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Oct 24, 2009
30 years and counting

30 years and counting

It’s an amazing time in history. On the one hand, we’re seeing movement on the part of same-sex couples to have the right to marry, while on the other hand, we see the heterosexual world increasingly treating “marriage” with callous disregard. It’s this latter point that stood out to me while watching “Away We Go” recently. In case you’ve not seen it, I’ll shamelessly cut and post the synopsis from here:

Mid-thirtysomethings Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant are a loving couple. Burt has always wanted to marry Verona, but Verona resists, not seeing the point of the institution. Regardless, they are having a baby together, despite questioning their potential parenting abilities. They are happy that they made the decision to move close to Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria Farlander, as they want to share the experience with the baby’s grandparents. Verona’s own parents died over ten years earlier, a situation about which she doesn’t like to discuss. In Verona’s sixth month, she and Burt learn that Jerry and Gloria are moving to Antwerpen, Belgium the month before the baby is due, just because it’s something they’ve always wanted to do. Burt and Verona don’t understand what they see as Jerry and Gloria’s selfishness in putting this move above spending time with their impending granddaughter. Being mobile people, Burt and Verona decide to move. As they want to share their new family experience with people that they love, they decide to take a trans-continental trip to meet with old friends and relatives. Most of them are married with children of their own, and Burt and Verona want to see where they would like to live and with whom they want to share the experience.

It’s a touching movie, at times both funny and heartbreaking.  One senses the challenges of being rootless in every sense; geographically, vocationally, and spiritually.  We call this rootlessness liberty in our culture, but outsiders don’t necessarily see it as a gift, and this film shows why.  But that’s another topic for another post.  A sub-plot in the movie is Burt’s continued desire to marry Verona, and her continued refusal.  She’s suspicious, perhaps even cynical, regarding the notion that the institution of marriage has any value.

She’s not alone.  Five years ago Harvard Magazine published this thoughtful article that both exposes our culture’s growing antipathy towards marriage, and explains some of the reasons for the shift.  It’s a good read,but long, and includes ‘birth control’, ‘women entering the work force’, and ‘the failures of their parents’ as all contributing factors.  Who needs the paper anyway?  Will the paper enhance love?

While I understand the rationale here, I find all of this disturbing because I’m a huge fan of marriage.  I’m a fan personally, because I’ve had the privilege of being married now for the past 30 years and can say that, at least in our case, the harvest comes, more and more, as the years pile up.  What I mean by that is that the earlier years had challenges that required of both of us skills that we didn’t yet possess.  By God’s grace and wisdom (and I mean that literally) we were able to learn the skills without destroying each other or permanently withdrawing into our respective corners.  Now, there are still challenges, but we’ve greater skills, and hence greater truth telling, and grace giving, capacity.  In other words:  Life is Good.

I can’t know how it would have played out were it not for the covenant piece, but I do know that there were times when I said to myself:  “I made a vow” and that was, at the very least, a piece of what kept me, not only married, but engaged in the process of learning to love.  I think many people diminish the vow, thinking that it only means sharing a bed, or if not that, at least a house and kids.  We promise much more, actually.  We promise to love and to cherish, come hell or highwater, come cancer or dimentia.  It’s a promise that, if we really take it seriously, I believe turns us towards Christ, asking Him to give us what we don’t have, in order to be the kind of people we promised to be.

We won’t do this perfectly.

Many days we won’t do it well.  Some days we won’t do it at all.  But still, we’ve taken a vow, and the vow becomes a reference point.   That reference point has been a gift for me more than once!  I’m not just glad I live with Donna.  I’m glad I’m married to her.  I think this might have been at least part of what God had in mind when he spoke of leaving home and clinging to one’s partner, in the sense that you’ve closed the back door.  Yes, there’s grace for failed marriages, but should the failures become rationale for throwing away the possibility of covenant?  I don’t think so.

So please help me understand why marriage has fallen on hard times.  Do you think we should be working hard to renew it?  Why or Why not?  If so, how?

The Bible as an Idol

by , on
Oct 20, 2009
The Bible:  Maybe the most dangerous idol?

The Bible: Maybe the most dangerous idol?

In Exodus 20, the very first of God’s ten commandments is His declaration that we must “have no other gods”, and right on the heels of that, we’re warned against “graven images”, which is a warning against fabricating gods out from our own creativity as representations of the true God.  God warns against this, of course, because He knows that our attempts to represent God will always, mis-represent Him, as we can do none other than make God in our own image.   If you’d like an example of this ‘re-shaping of God’, you don’t need to go to a new age bookstore, though you can find it there.  Just jump over and check out the Conservative Bible Project, where God’s character and truth is being reshaped according in the image of American political conservatism.  Idols, it turns out, can thrive on the left AND the right.

The project appears to have been born out of a legitimate concern that political correctness has, over the past years, created a push towards rewriting the Bible, by adding gender inclusive language.  Conservatives have responded with their own rewrite, which goes back to the original gender based pronouns, but excludes disputed passages, removes “any and all socialist language”, and “celebrates the free-market parables”.  They also intend to “identify pro-liberal terms used in existing Bible translations, such as “government”, and suggest more accurate substitutes”.  This new version also declares it’s intent to “Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms” whenever possible, in order to combat the liberal biases that come about when a more literal translation is offered.”

I’ll begin by observing that the left messes with the clear meaning of the Bible all the time, so in critiquing this new project, I’m not advocating that some other ideology has the “pure way”.  This project, however, is fraught with flaws that make it perhaps even more dangerous than the errors on the left.  What kind of flaws?

1. Political and Economic Conservatism isn’t “God’s favorite way”.  I say this because when people declare openly their intent to celebrate free-market parables (supposedly, like the talents), and villify the term ‘government’, their obvious intent is to shape the Bible into some sort of capitalist, free-market manifesto, as if Jesus would celebrate the opening of franchises, and the unrestricted growth of big business.

This is nonsense.  The Bible does contain free market parables, perhaps to the dismay of the left.  But the government God invented for Israel defies the modern economic categories we’ve created.  There’s land ownership (capitalist), but there’s mandated care for the poor (socialist).  There’s banking, in that there’s the possibility of loans and interest.  But there’s also an ‘every fifty year’ reversal of fortunes that would have had the effect of preventing the disappearance of the middle class, as well providing for liberation of slaves, a concept which any pure capitalist might well regard as wealth redistribution, or what Libertarians would call “theft”.  Did I mention the health code that “big government God” imposed on Israel?  Provisions were made for dealing with the outbreak of plagues, the disposal of human waste, the disposal of dead bodies, and more.  How families and farms dealt with these things were imposed on them as law.

2. God’s “Good Leaders” defy Conservative Values.  We’re prone, all of us Americans are, to throw people out of leadership after a moral failing.  God, though, obviously isn’t American, because he stuck with Abraham when he slept with maid; stuck with David when he used his power to seduce and sleep with his neighbor’s wife.  Sure, the left ignores God’s calls to sexual purity, and sometimes presses interpretations to the breaking point in order to justify sexual libertarianism when God clearly has ethics and high standards about this stuff.  The Bible is also clear in pointing out the dramatic consequences of our sexual failures, on heart, soul, family, body, even nation.  But it also seems that God is more patient with people’s moral frailty than most people are.  That’s why, even though Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery will be removed from this new Bible, the truth that God is patient with sexual failure will remain.

3. Who is shaping Who? God is supposed to shape us and He uses the Bible to do it. I’ve a firm conviction that when we let it speak plainly as the living Word, it will cut us to core – all of us.  The left, for example, will be offended by the consequences of sexual libertarianism, and reality that we’ll ‘always have the poor with us’.  They won’t like that Jesus sided with the woman spilling the perfume on his feet, because they’ll agree with Judas that the money could be given to poor.  The right will be offended too, by the passages I’ve articulated above, and more.

After we’ve wrestled with the meaning of scripture on an issue, and come to an understanding that challenges our current beliefs or practices we have a couple of options.  We can either:  1) change our ways of thinking and living. That’s called repentance.  2) reframe the text to mean something that fits into our current beliefs and lifestyle without requiring anything of us.  That’s called idolatry.

When all my interpretations of the God’s Word must pass through the grid of my conservatism, or liberalism, or Calvinism, or the worldview of my pastor, I’d better be concerned, because I’ve become an idol worshipper, and I’ve made a god in my image, out of my own interpretation of a book called, “The Holy Bible”.  That might be the most dangerous idol of all.

Your thoughts?

Are we there yet? Sojourners and Shalom

by , on
Oct 16, 2009

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

How do you find music you like? Here’s one way it happens for me…

I purchased a compilation CD recently because I’d heard one song on it, on the radio, that I wanted to savor, and because the proceeds from the CD go to preserving the forests of our beautiful Cascade mountains. Neither reason would have been good enough alone, but together, I caved and bought the CD.

Though I bought it because of this, I loved both the lyrics and music of Ingrid Michaeleson in this song, so I visited her web site, and bought more of her music. Three nights ago, alone, I sat and listened, over and over again, to her offering titled, “Are we there yet?” I thought of those I know facing cancer, infidelity, foreclosure, aloneness, and so much more. Ingrid takes the trite little things we’ve said all our lives, like “Home is where the heart is” and “Every cloud has a silver lining” and turns them on their head to reveal the reality of our incompleteness. I listened to it eight times in a row, sitting in candlelight as the rain fell, and pondered the tension in which all of us must leave, between the shalom (peace and wholeness) of God, and the reality that we’re sojourners.

Are we there yet? Nope….not even close. Hebrews 11 tells us that nobody’s ever there, not in this life, not even among people of faith. There’s always, it seems, an ache. Even, as I’ve written elsewhere, in our moments that come closest to perfection, there’s an awareness of how fleeting they are. The perfect powder melts. The perfect moment of intimacy fades.  Stuff happens.  “Are we there yet?”… I don’t think so.

And yet, it’s also true that somehow, mysteriously, in the midst of our not yet being there, a peace is available to us that is beyond our capacity to grasp. This peace, in its fullest expression, has its roots in God’s notion of “shalom” which encompasses the deep satisfaction that comes from everything being just right. And there’s a sense in which this shalom is available to us right now, not in full measure surely, but available nonetheless.

I believe that it’s available because, in Christ, we’re granted to possibility of looking at the world through different eyes, childlike, wide-eyed with wonder over the simplest things, be they the remarkable shades of green that come after the rain, or the subtle tastes of a good red wine. A friend who is battling cancer has this sense of ‘sojourner’ right now as she does battle with the disease in her body, AND at the same time, she experiences profound peace and joy because her daughter in law is carrying her first grand daughter. There it is: sojourner and shalom.

Unless we have the eyes of Christ, the sojourner piece will devastate us and we’ll become, frankly, dark people who either numb ourselves through addictive escapes, or pour our own darkness into the world, or both.

Thanks Ingrid, for a song that captures the reality of our sojourning so powerfully. And thanks be to God that in the reality of our brokenness, shalom awaits.