Sunday, March 28, 2010

Holy Week and Spring

At our previous home in Akron, OH, we had a wonderful view of a small lake behind our house, with a thick, unmowed patch of land between the lake and our lawn. The wild flowers and bushes disappeared in winter; I saw neighbor kids tramping through there in the snow or crossing on their skis. But in springtime the flowers and bushes returned, and by early summer that section of our property became impenetrable except for my little mowed path. The vegetation grew so thick that it was hard to cast a fishing line properly; my daughter, her friend, and I tried but couldn’t avoid tangling our lines. During our backyard play times, Emily and I also lost many a golf ball in the brush.

In springtime I noticed the return of frogs crocking in the nearby wetlands, and also of killdeer, those pretty birds that make their nests in inappropriate, vulnerable places. At a country church I once served, a killdeer laid its eggs in the gravel parking lot—then, of course, it fussed and ran each time a car pulled into the lot. A thoughtful church member made a sign and put it beside the nest so people would take care not to drive into it.

I've been browsing through my Bible, looking for seasonal texts. The Passover stories are spring stories: at this time of year, observant Jews clean their homes for all traces of hametz in preparation for the Pesach remembrance of God’s salvation of the Israelites from Egypt.

Here is another springtime verse from “sexy” Song of Songs.

The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land
(Song of Songs 2:12).

Our bird feeder in Akron attracted birds like sparrows, cardinals, doves, titmice, and finches.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of our head are all numbered. Fear not; you are you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

The verse would lose something if it mentioned starlings or blue jays, species that many people find annoying. Sparrows, in their smallness, seem more illustrative of God’s tender care.

The death and resurrection stories are beautiful springtime stories: the new life of the season and the spiritual new life offered by Jesus. I can never read those stories without also feeling some of the happiness of the warmth and renewal of nature. Around my childhood home (amid the scattered bricks in the backyard left over from the house’s construction, and near the television antenna) daffodils appeared reliably around Easter time. The flowers invited speculation about their survival through the inevitable cold days of March and April. That, too, is analogous to Good Friday, when people speculated pessimistically about the future of Jesus’ legacy, as illustrated by the downcast fellows walking to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-34).

The theological and the geographical got sentimentally mixed up in my mind in another way: the Easter egg hunts that took place in Rogier Park in my hometown. Rogier Park is still a pretty, undulating park on Fillmore St. in Vandalia; we lived just down the street. My very earliest memory of an egg hunt, c. 1960 or 1961, was that the sponsors had used dyed hard-boiled eggs! I could hear cries of "liability" if they did that today. The following year and thereafter, the sponsors used plastic eggs containing chocolate. I never quite outgrew the association of Easter with a shady, happy place where Jesus himself might have paused (Luke 18:15-17)!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lent as a Place

A few years ago I wrote a book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives, published by Upper Room Books (2006). The following isn’t a plug for the book--maybe a little one--but a paraphrase of some material in chapters 1 and 4 and also new thoughts that have to do with Lent. I was thinking about Lent, and also the theme of “place,“ which is one of my favorite subjects. I wondered: Lent is a period of time, but can you think of Lent as a place?

We can connect the temporal season of Lent to particular places in our lives, and also we can think metaphorically about the place of Lent.

One place is the wilderness. As I wrote in my little book, we tend to have a positive feeling about natural wilderness in our own time, more so than the Bible in which wilderness is either neutral or threatening: for instance, the different kinds of geographical regions, or specially the area of the Dead Sea, or the Sinai region that was the scene of the Israelite wondering.

“Wilderness” is an apt spiritual metaphor. In Exodus 15-17, for instance, the Israelites moved among dry places where no drinkable water was available, and they grumbled with sufficient seriousness that Moses sought God’s help. Many of us can think of times when we felt discouraged and tested; we couldn’t see the nature of God’s provision and wondered what was going on. Perhaps other people had let us down; perhaps we messed up our own lives; perhaps life was filled with stress through no one’s particular fault. Anxiety, distress, “what if” thoughts, difficult periods of waiting, and other things fill wilderness times. In turn, we associate particular places in our lives with feeling lost and discouraged. What are the places of your own life that you connect with "wilderness" and an apparent lack of fulfillment of God’s promises?

Waiting on God is actually a positive thing, though it may not feel very positive! Read scriptures like Isaiah 40:31, Psalm 25:5, and Psalm 33:20-21. But even Bible people struggle with a sense of God’s absence, for instance, the author of Psalm 42 and 43 which expresses emptiness and disappointment. The psalmist wants God, wants to be with God, and knows that he will eventually praise God again, but for now, God seems missing. I love this psalm because here, in God’s Word, are words about a person who is having a faith crisis! The psalm’s sick bed is, because of its immobility, also a place of “wandering” amid a feeling of God’s absence. What are some of your places of waiting on God?

Along those same lines, another place of Lent is the familiar place that has been changed in such a way that our comfort is disrupted. As I wrote in my little book, the telephone or the mailbox are innocuous places--until we are waiting on news of, for instance, medical results, or the safety of a loved one. In those times, everyday places can become foci of fervent prayer, waiting, and dependence upon God.

I'm also thinking about how our worship experiences can become focused during the Lenten season. For instance, a pastor might change the nature of the congregation’s worship space in order to help people understand God and faith in different ways. I found a blog,, that described ways this congregation has experimenting with worship space and styles.

How wonderful! I pray fervently for any pastor who attempts such a thing. It’s not good when a pastor takes a “This is good for you” attitude with the congregation. On the other hand, a pastor needs to find helpful ways to challenge people that does not elicit so much frustration from the congregation that the purpose is defeated. I remember visiting a church years ago; suddenly the older lady to our right angrily reached over and snatched the hymnal from the pew rack in front of us. We’d taken her pew spot and she got back at us by claiming “her” hymnal, so my wife and I had nothing to use for singing! With some church folk so stuck in their ways--and punitive if you upset them--the pastor has to use patience, discernment, and prayer in order to challenge folk in their worship. A pastor can make Lent-oriented worship changes that are both interesting and spiritually helpful so that people can experience God in fresh ways that, in turn, can build upon their previous experiences of God.

The main “place” of Lent is God! You can think of God as a place! It’s a venerable tradition. I noted in my book that the Bible sometimes “localizes” God’s presence, as on the mountains of Exodus 19 and 1 Kings 19, and verses like Deut. 16:16 and Isaiah 8:18. But these have to do with God’s desire to be present in certain places rather than a limitation to which God is obliged. Even the holy Temple is not the special place of God apart from his will (e.g., Jer. 7:1-7; 22:16, Isaiah 66:1-2, Acts 7:48-50).

The Bible refers metaphorically to God in place-terms. God is our machseh, that is, “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In Genesis 28:17, God is maqom, “How awesome is this place!” During the rabbinical period the word maqom became a metaphorical name for God, as in Philo writes, “God … is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.” Also, a midrash refers to God as "place" because God is “the place of the world.”A scripture like Psalm 139:7-10 shows how God comes to every place where we are and is not limited to our circumstances.

As I write in my book (p. 26): “Christians, like Jews, honored God who is unbounded by time and space, the God who is a dwelling and refuge for all who call upon him. Jesus becomes the “place to go” to know God in spirit and truth (Matt. 7:25, John 4:21-24), the “new thing” that God has done by which we might know God (Isa. 43:19, Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is the place that encompasses all places, because in and through him all things came to be (Col 1:15-20). Not only that, but through Jesus Christ God has broken down all barriers and has accomplished all that is necessary for peace, reconciliation, and salvation (Eph. 1:5-14, 3:8-14). He is present for us in whatever place we are, until the close of time (Matt. 28:20, Rev. 22:13).”

I’ve written in my other Lenten posts that we need to be careful: we need to center Lent around God and let our practices clarify God's providence and will. If we think of God our maqom and machseh, our Lenten observance is focused upon our true place and true home.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Follow Me, Dog Breath

Some connections. The other day I caught an episode of “Hill Street Blues,“ on an high-numbered cable station that I don’t often watch. “Hill Street Blues” was the much-honored cop show that ran in 1981-1987. Coincidentally, the episode was one that I wanted to see again. “Requiem for a Hairbag” featured Dominique Dunne (1959-1982), who played an abused young woman who had left her baby in a cop car. The episode can be found here: The exchange between the officer and the young woman, which starts at 32:31, is heartrending even if you didn’t know that some of the bruises on Dunne’s face were real, made by her boyfriend who, not long after the episode was taped, killed Dunne (

I’ve been slow to take advantage of, but thus reminded of an old favorite series, I checked the site for another favorite episode, “Jungle Madness, Part 2,” where Officer La Rue hits bottom with his drinking and joins A.A. If you don’t have time to watch the whole episode, watch the section that begins at 13:50 and the wonderful redemption for La Rue, with a twist, which begins at 40:02. Like the character, actor Kiel Martin (1944-1990) managed alcoholism.

That section at 40:02 gets me verklempt in the same way as the scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Red, toward the end of the story, discovers the thing that his friend Andy buried in the shade of an oak tree. “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things,” as Andy says in that movie. Sometimes, hope doesn’t lead to anything good, but how wonderful when a reason for hope appears when circumstances have fallen to their lowest place.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times featured a story about the artist Caravaggio. I like Caravaggio’s work and was pleased when my editors used a painting of his for one of my books. The technique called “chiaroscuro” is the contrasting use of shadows and light, and Caravaggio is well known for his use of this technique; where light falls, it is very strong, casting dark shadows where detail becomes lost.

What does the artist have to do with the cop show? The show’s crowded, claustrophobic shots make me think of Caravaggio’s paintings like “The Taking of Christ” and “Concert of Youths,“ where the figures are crammed together within the canvas. Since the artist used everyday people and even prostitutes as his models, I could imagine he would find good subjects if he hung around a typical urban police station, as the show focused a lot on society‘s outcasts. Some “dog breath” (as perpetually angry Officer Belker called people as he arrested them) could’ve been a model for a person called by Jesus, like the wonderful "Call of St. Matthew."

The artist’s religious paintings have many interesting qualities, which make you think about the strange interconnections of nature and grace. The dead Mary has swollen ankles; traveling pilgrims have dusty feet; the ungainly horse ridden by the blinded Paul is the painting‘s main feature. As vulgar and shocking as Caravaggio’s paintings can be, he incoporates human imperfection in an imaginative way when depicting religious subjects. When Lazarus is raised, he looks dead--his skin is discolored and he has rigor mortis--but his hand is upraised, as if he must regain life slowly, like a sick, stiff person must adjust to walking. In "The Entombment of Jesus," Nicodemus looks toward us, but it’s hard to tell if he is making a connection with the viewer or simply looking away from Jesus’ body. "The Beheading of John the Baptist" is awful; like a terrorist killing a victim for a video tape, the executioner is using a long knife instead of a (presumably more humane) axe to kill John.

I like "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas," where Jesus practically forces Thomas’ hand into his side wound, though not cruelly. Jesus’ expressions in Caravaggio’s paintings are firm but kind, as in another well-known painting, "The Call of St. Matthew." Matthew is just a 1600s guy gathered at the tavern with his cronies to tally the day's income. But to the side, not at all the prominent figure, is Jesus, pointing at Matthew, who in turn seems to say, “Who, me?”

Caravaggio led a violent life and had a long police record. He painted himself into several paintings, notably David with the Head of Goliath which (although only the head looks like the artist) seems to be a double self-portrait, the young man looking with disgust at the older man. Did he ever find peace? All we know if that he seemed to understand mysteries of faith in a profound way that reflect a struggling faith beneath his lonely, vicious life, as suggested at this site: Some of the most imperfect and troubled people, after all, are those to whom Christ points.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Following the Bible during Lent

In my earlier posts "Ash Wednesday and Lent" (2/15/10) and "Praying in Lent" (3/9/10), I thought about the need to keep our Lenten growth Christ- and Spirit-centered. I want to think some more about that, with a different, somewhat round-about approach. How does our growth in Christ (at Lent and other seasons) connect to our Bible reading? How is our spiritual growth guided by the Bible?

We don’t always think through the way the power of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the Spirit's ongoing presence in our lives guides the way we read and interpret the Bible.[1] This point came home to me strongly as I was reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.[2] Goldsworthy says that, “while there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel.”[3] Although his assertion by no means exhausts the different ways we can read the Bible, I find his argument quite interesting with regard to preaching, devotional Bible reading, and Christian practice.[4] How does the Good News—the wholly free gift of salvation of sinners through the blood of Christ and the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit—influence our Bible reading?

For one thing, the Good News gives is a larger interpretive framework with which to approach the whole Bible. For instance, consider the Torah. Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship.[5] If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament changes these levels of authority. In the New Testament, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority; the “lesser” prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary, yet not abrogated way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6). Because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. Instead of quoting it randomly for proof-texts, or ignoring most of it altogether, we must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness.

Similarly, consider the prophets. Read through those books and you’ll see the harshness of God’s judgment against the people’s faithlessness and the direness of his warnings. A person could easily neglect the context of the prophets in ancient Israel and use prophetic judgments to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.) The prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future: the person and work of Christ. To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.[6]

But not only does the gospel give us an interpretive framework for the whole Bible, the Good news of Christ's death and resurrection also informs how we understand New Testament teachings, so that we don't err and consider them a form of salvation by works, as Goldsworthy argues. The Bible's words are inseparable from the life and power of a living Savior who is our teacher, healer, and risen Lord. The Good News frees us from the law (Gal. 3:10, 3:23) and also makes us take the demands of discipleship all the more seriously, because we’re freed from the notion that God saves us when we, in our supposed personal righteousness, have checked off the “shalts” and avoided all the “shalt nots.”

I thought of several ways this is true when we think during Lent (and other seasons) about our spiritual goals and growth in Christ.

* When I was young, I worried that God was keeping track of every time I became angry and called someone a “fool” (or “jerk” or “idiot” or more unprintable versions): Matt. 5:21-22. Yes, we’re held accountable for “every careless word” (Matt. 12:36), but we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do (Rom. 3:28). We’re saved from our sins, without reservation, and we have ongoing forgiveness and power for salvation (Heb. 4:14-16). But when we look at this “fool” passage in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see afresh at how Jesus has saved us from all our sins (past, present and future), and so, thus freed from the fear of earning God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9), we can respond with a new sense of joy and love, both for God and for one another (Rom. 8:1-8). As Christ healed his contemporaries, his love and power heals our souls of angry words (although anger is a normal human emotion when appropriately addressed: Eph. 4:26, 31).

Thus, instead of interpreting that “fool” saying as a law, we see it as an even deeper challenge: how are we modeling Christ’s love? How are we growing in love through the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24, so that dismissive and contemptuous comments cross our minds less frequently? How is the Spirit of Christ changing the content of our hearts?

* Similarly forgiveness. “We’re supposed to forgive each other,” we might say. But we forgive each other in the context of a lively, growing relationship with Christ. When we are freed by Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness is not a law or a hard obligation. Forgiveness is a response to Christ’s unearned love. Even more, we don’t have to force ourselves to forgive through our own will power, but we find power to learn to forgive (and even empowered forgiveness isn’t always easy) as we deepen our relationship to Christ.

* And prayer. Another verse that worried me when I was young was “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). I couldn’t do that! Nobody can: our brains are not neurologically set to focus continually. But that verse isn’t a law that requires every single thought to be prayerful. That verse is a call to deepen our love and concern for one another as we receive the resurrected Jesus’ love and power. Instead of interpreting the verse primarily as a rule, we focus upon Christ as our Savior and helper when we fail. Through Christ, our minds and hearts acquire the habit and impulse of prayer.

* And speaking of prayer: how do we pray the Psalms as Christians? Obviously the psalms are Hebrew and Jewish prayers, now part of the Christian canon, too. But as Christians, we could very easily neglect to connect the psalms to Christ’s death and resurrection. For instance, if you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” are you praying the prayer as a plea to God for forgiveness and restoration? Do you also and simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through the crucified and risen Lord? I admit, I've prayed the psalm without connecting it strongly to Christ's saving death and resurrection! But David prayed his prayer without Christ. Psalm 51, classic though it is, we Christians HAVE to connect it to verses like Romans 7:24-25 and 8:37-39, where the assurance of Christ’s salvation of sinners is affirmed.

* What about using a Bible verse as God’s holy word in condemnation of another person? Jesus himself stood condemned by God’s word; he was under a curse because of God’s law (Deut. 21:23). He also gave grace and a new opportunity to the woman of John 7:53-8:11, when people used God’s word against her. Certainly the Bible warns us and can be used to warn. But one particular warning, Matthew 7:1-5, is all the more keen when we’re tempted to employ the Bible in a condemnatory way. This is good to remember--always, but also during a time of self-assessment and honest introspection during the Lenten season.

* As we grow in Christ, we're called to make disciples. Is our evangelism always supposed to achieve great results? The contemporary decline of membership among mainline denominations has added urgency to evangelistic efforts. Acts 2:41 and 47 imply that, if we’re doing evangelism right, God will bless our efforts with great numbers. This outlook dovetails well with American concepts of success; but “getting great numbers” was not a concern of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46; nor was Paul’s ministry among the Athenians effective in practical terms. Yet no one would say that Paul shouldn’t have taken his ministry among the Greek intellectuals. Our command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) is relevant whether we make a few disciples or many: the real work of conversation is not done by us but by God’s Spirit.

* How about using Bible characters as models? Let me use David as an example, for the Bible calls him a “man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14, Acts 13:22), in spite of his very flawed life. If you’re like me, you want to be a person after God’s heart, too! We ask, “How can God use me? Does God see me as somebody he can use?” Neither is necessarily an easy question to answer. As we develop a good spiritual life that includes regular worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer, and a certain amount of spiritual discipline, we try to keep focusing back to God. We try to stay open to God’s guidance and purpose. We take comfort that a flawed person like David could be so well used by God.

But we can’t raise these questions only in the context of David’s stories! Goldsworthy makes this point concerning Bible heroes in general. First, we need to be careful not to place ourselves on a similar stature as David, to make ourselves equal somehow to him, or to make God’s plans with Israel similar to the patterns of our lives. (Besides, David was an Iron Age warrior and killer of many, many people; to focus upon and identify with only his spiritual humility is to ignore significant things about him.) David and his people were special in God’s salvation history, while we’re beneficiaries of the groundwork God accomplished through them.

Second, although we can certainly learn with aspects of Bible characters’ experiences, we need to seek God’s will about these stories in the context of our salvation in Christ. For instance, we all actually have a better chance to become close to God than David because, now, God’s Spirit is poured out to all of us. We potentially have a clearer notion of God's will for our lives than Abraham, for we have the Spirit and a community to help us discern God's leadings. God’s Spirit gives gifts of power and ministry unimaginable in ancient times, taking God’s will for us to new levels (John 14:12).

So often we take Bible passages and Bible commandments and separate them from the key things: our covenant relationship with God, our relationship to God through Christ, our assurance of salvation, and the power of the Holy Spirit which is at work in us. The way Goldsworthy puts it, "The problem is when the gospel is viewed only as how we start the Christian life, for then the only way to continue is law. Yet the perspective consistently set out in the New Testament is that we need the gospel [Christ's saving power] to grow. . . The greater our sense of being forgiven and justified sinners, the greater will be the likelihood that others will see in us the character of Christ." [7]

1. The idea of “progressive revelation” affirms the development of God’s truth from lesser to greater clarity. Scriptures such as a prophetic messianic text or a messianic psalm have has meaning for their own times but gain additional meaning when we connect the passage’s original sense to Christ.

2. Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching by Graeme Goldsworthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2000).

3. Goldworthy, page 95.

4. In its variety of witnesses, the Bible allows for a variety of readings. For instance, Walter Brueggemann warns: “[T]he task of Old Testament theology, as a Christian enterprise, is to articulate, explicate, mobilize, and make accessible and available the testimony of the Old Testament in all of its polyphonic, elusive, imaginative power and to offer it to the church for its continuing work of construal toward Jesus. That is, Old Testament theology, in my judgment, must prepare the material and full respect the interpretive connections made in the New Testament and the subsequent church; but it must not make those connections, precisely because the connections are not to be found in the testimony of ancient Israel, but in the subsequent work of imaginative construal that lies beyond the text of the Old Testament.” Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy by Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), page 732. Brueggemann differs in his approach from the canonical readings of Brevard Childs.

5. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures by Stephen M. Wylan, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), pages 22-23.
This is not to say Jews cannot interpret the Torah laws. Jews recognize that not every law is applicable today and therefore they must be discussed and considered. Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), is a publication from the Reform tradition that interprets and discusses the Torah material.

6. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context by Brevard S. Childs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986,), pages 128-132.

7. Goldsworthy, p. 96.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Back at Greenville

Yesterday I visited the campus of Greenville College in southern Illinois. I obtained my B.A. in history from GC in 1979. (This postcard from an earlier time depicts the college library that still served the campus when I was there.) A classmate who teaches at GC invited me to speak in chapel, which I was happy to do, and it was fun! I’m a roll these days to teach people how pervasive the theme of “the poor and the needy” is within the Bible, so I gave a version of the 9/22/09 post, “The Bible Really, Really, Really Wants Us To…” I got to chat with a few current students and appreciated meeting them.

I look back on my college years with mixed emotions. I felt very Charlie Brown-ish: willing to get in there and try but never quite in sync, and I took things very hard. (At the time you could go into the campus prayer room and write your prayers anonymously in a notebook. There, I realized how many other students struggled with similar feelings of loneliness and worthlessness.) And yet ….I liked many fellow students, enjoyed almost all my classes, appreciated most of my professors, adored the well-supplied library, and as I’ve reconnected with ol’ college friends on Facebook, and I realize, to my chagrin and gratitude, how much people liked me back in those days. “Good grief,” as Charlie would say.

The college (and, obviously, God’s grace) put my vocation on a permanent track. I stayed with my history major, which I’ve used in writing and teaching. I rededicated my life to Christ during my first year, began to explore spiritual and theological work, and went to seminary in the fall of 1979.

Since I allowed plenty of time yesterday to make the 1½-hour drive, I arrived at campus ridiculously early. So I strolled around a bit. This wasn’t the first time in 31 years since I’d returned; I’d been on campus a few times during the early 1980s, let twenty years pass, and then I’d visited the school again during the past several years. Along with other campus changes, the old library has been replaced by an impressive new facility, and the historic administration building was razed in 2008 because of structural problems. I moseyed into Marston Hall, which had “in my day” been classrooms. Two favorite classrooms on the ground floor are now offices (in one room, I “CLEPed” out of a whole semester), and the fourth floor room where I’d taken German class is now a conference room.

I remember that class fondly because my wife’s deceased first husband and I were friends and we “cut up” a bit in that class. Jim--Beth’s first husband--ran chronically late for things. One Monday morning he showed up to German class at ten-till-the-hour, proud that he was early. The whole class told him that he was fifty minutes late: he’d not changed his watch for Daylight Savings Time and, apparently, had made it through Sunday on the new time but got goofed up that Monday morning. Beth and I reminisced about that as we and several friends were regretting the upcoming, truncated night of sleep.

Across the green space, the student union is still there, but the old bookstore is now the mailroom. The book store, as well as the Marston Hall lecture room where I had my freshman intro-to-religion class, were definitely starting-lines for my career.

Years later, I considered writing my doctoral dissertation on the Neo-Thomist philosopher Joseph Maréchal, S.J. I recall reading an intro to Maréchal’s work which said something to the effect that Maréchal was so brilliant but had to spend some of his career teaching undergraduates. The arrogance of that remark made me throw the book across the room; I personally feel very blessed that God has included undergraduate education in his call to me to serve him! The commitment of my teachers at GC became a wonderful example. My feelings of loneliness and uncertainty in college was also instructive; what a great blessing a kind and interested professor can be to a student, not just in the subject but possibly for his or her life!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Praying in Lent

Lent is an excellent period in which to renew one’s prayer life... but so are other times of the year.

The epistle says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) but of course that cannot be taken literally if it refers to an individual Christian’s prayer. I like this short page ( that explains “without ceasing” as an attitude and an openness. One of the first Hebrew words I learned was hinneni, “Here am I!” the response that people like Abraham made when God called to him. Our professor, Bonnie Kittel of blessed memory, noted that the response implied a openness and readiness to hear God. That’s one good way to think about prayer: a communicative attitude toward God that in turn makes us open to God’s leading and guidance.

I’ve several prayer books but usually read from the “Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer” based on the Liturgy of the Hours, and I’ve four devotional quarterlies that I like to use. Recently I got out other resources that I like but haven’t used for a while. My wife’s deceased first husband received a little prayer book ("My Prayer Book") when he was confirmed, and it contains wonderful intercessory prayers. I’ve other books that I use less often, but I found a nice “Minister’s Prayer Book” published by Muhlenberg Press in the 1950s.

I wish I was more consistent day to day to use these resources. I do pretty well, but since my days are filled with teaching and writing on religious subjects, I’m often thinking about God and mentally praying to God but my “organized” religious devotion falls by the wayside unless I make an effort to keep that part of my life on track.

On the other hand … Years ago (1980s?) I read an article in Christian Century that made the point that Jesus seemed not to have a structured way of praying. He prayed a lot and sought time and places for solitary prayer, but the texts say nothing about specified times that he prayed, nor did he make people wait for him to conclude his prayer time. The article noted that being organized in our prayer lives could just mean that we’re … well organized!

We grow in quality and quantity of prayer among our daily comings and goings (Ps. 121:8). When I was in seminary, my prayers were self-doubtful, anxious, and uncertain about the future---not untypical of a “dark night” situation. Seminary is a time for many of us when God tests our calling and vocation. Now … I’m nearly thirty years out of seminary, happy with and amazed at the ways God has led me over the years. So my prayers aren’t self-doubtful in the manner of a young person, but my prayers are offered with a heightened, respectful sense of mortality and the unpredictability of life. During the last ten years my amazing daughter has grown from middle school- to college-age, and I’ve handled my widowed mother’s affairs in addition to all my other responsibilities. Circumstances like these (and others) can help a person turn more of “life” over to God’s care. You really do understand, psychologically, that surrendering to God's care is a happier way to live than clinging to the idea that you have a lot of control over your life.

But mental prayer can carry the risk of self-involvement and self-satisfaction. That’s why I have my little battery of prayer helps that I use to direct my prayers during those secret times of Matt. 6:6. Prayer resources are wonderful: among other things, they explain prayer, they provide accompanying scriptures, they contain great prayers with which we can read along and make our own, and they remind us what to pray for. Prayer resources can also stop us cold when we encounter prayer-words that we really don’t want to pray at that moment! Thus we can think about the present situation of our feelings toward God.

I’m a member of two prayer chains. The requests come by email so I print these out. Much of my daily attitude in prayer is intercessory, but I’m liable to forget to pray for folks whom I don’t know unless I have the prayer requests at hand. I have these words of Oswald Chambers almost memorized: "The real business of your life as a saved soul is intercessory prayer. Wherever God puts you in circumstances, pray immediately, pray that His Atonement may be realized in other lives as it has been in yours. Pray for your friends NOW; pray for those with who you come in contact NOW."

As I wrote this little piece, I grew very insecure. Specifically, I worried that I don’t do enough for God, both in my prayer life or generally. This is a good example of the importance of fortifying our mental prayers with scripture study and resources. We’re saved by Christ’s redeeming work, not anything we do. Although there are numerous ways to pray (some better than others), our prayers are never ways to earn God's favor or to "leverage" God. Prayer is a wonderful way to learn more about the God who has done more for us than we can imagine (Eph. 3:20-21).

* On a related note, a friend tweeted this Christianity Today article, an excellent reminder of God's love!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Pretty Woman, Watchin' Down the Street

A striking commercial, which can be found at, caught my attention last week. In the ad, a pretty, dark-eyed woman walks down the street. Her expression brightens, and she watches something in the distance as graphics circle her head. The music is electronic and (to me) reminiscent of a French café. Then you see an Acura ZDX automobile--the object of the woman’s curiosity.

Who is this woman? What is that music? According to this site, the woman is a Polish model named Karolina Wydra, and the song is “Pa' Bailar” by the South American (Rioplatense) group Bajofondo. I downloaded the catchy song from iTunes. As for the pretty Ms. Wydra, who has also appeared on "House" and "True Blood," this site gives more information about her:

I love the internet! My students would probably find my appreciation funny and old-foggyish. Over thirty years ago, I tried to find the address of the publisher of the Jack Bruce song, “Theme from an Imaginary Western,” to get permission to quote it. Wonderful as our small town library is, I couldn’t find the resources to help--and then gave up too quickly without thinking I could order a resource from interlibrary loan. Now… if you want to know something, in less than five minutes you usually find what you want, without getting off the couch. Of course, I could’ve spent that five minutes more productively than researching an interesting TV commercial. But hey, now I know who the woman is, and I know there is such a thing as Latin Alternative music!

I’m still neutral about Acura cars, however, and didn’t check them out on the internet. In fact, I keep forgetting which car company it is: Lexus? Infiniti? Acura enriched my day a little with their ad but didn‘t achieve the ad’s purpose. Commercials can be that way: because they’re too clever (or too annoying), you aren’t sufficient intrigued by the product. I love the “Life Comes At You Fast” commercials but I struggle to remember which insurance company they pitch (it’s Nationwide). The ads are almost too entertaining. On the other hand, an ad featuring frogs that croak “bud …wei…ser” isn’t going to make you say, “Oh, I love that beer commercial with the croaking frogs but I can’t remember which beer it’s for. Heineken?”

Kleenex is currently running commercials about how the tissues give you “extra mothering.” The ads feature people who are trying out and discarding mothers until they find a mother they like. There is even an internet component to this campaign: I suppose these ads are funny in a certain way but something about leaving a mother at the side of the railroad tracks while you pick up another mother, or stomping from home to home in a snit till you find the care you want, isn’t, well, thigh-slapping funny. Not only that, the specific brand doesn't stay in my mind.

There is currently a series of commercials (are they run on stations other than St. Louis’?) with a young man against a white background. He urges people to accept Jesus into their lives. The spots are very short--no more than fifteen seconds long--and do not identify the sponsor nor “plug” any particular congregation, denomination, or group like the Mormons. I’m intrigued that someone has sponsored these ads for (apparently) purely evangelistic motives. I wonder if the ads will reach people. The ads are simple and straightforward enough to convey the basic point: no one will later think, “What were those ads about? Jesus? Buddha? New Age?”

In this case, the internet hasn’t helped me at all. Google “Jesus commercial”? Nothing apropos comes up. If I discover anything, I'll let you know. We can certainly pray that the ads (and the efforts of faithful people generally) will be used by the Spirit. Maybe someone could also sponsor TV spots that encourage people to seek justice (Micah 6:8), kindness (1 Cor. 13:4), empathy (Heb. 13:3), and so on.

(Update: those religious commercials were done by the St. Louis Family Church. )

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Missing Persons

Random thoughts based on a magazine article. I was browsing through the new issue of “Mojo” at the Barnes and Noble. The cover story concerns Syd Barrett, who helped found Pink Floyd (and named the group), became its songwriter and driving creative force, then became increasingly erratic, drug-dependent, and uncooperative until the band fired him. He released two solo albums, produced by Floyd members, then he left the music scene entirely--still in his mid-20s.

Barrett has long been a legendary, mysterious figure. His impact and influence was tremendous, not just upon the Floyd but other musicians as well. But was he schizophrenic? Autistic? Was he permanently brain damaged from his drug taking? Pink Floyd members and associates have long felt they did not do enough to help him, but from the accounts, he didn’t seem to want help and, apparently, lived most of his life in contented semi-anonymity in Cambridge. He died at the age of 60 in 2006.

The genius who makes a tremendous impact but drops out of sight is certainly a fascinating “trope.” J.D. Salinger, who died recently, is another example. What had he been doing since 1965, the year of his last publication? Did he leave publishable works behind? I enjoyed the movie “Finding Forrester” which, although it had its contrived and predictable aspects, was obviously inspired by Salinger (and also Harper Lee, who published one amazing book and then, believing she couldn’t top it, published no more novels).

Then there is the intriguing figure of Blind Blake, the influential blues artist whose guitar-playing style was widely admired and whose records sold well. But no one knows what happened to him after his last recording sessions in 1932. Theories about where and when he may have died, but nothing has been verified. At the time, he might have become a wonderfully mysterious case like Barrett. (Another interesting trope--the artist who not only withdraws but fakes his own death, dramatized in the movie Eddie and the Cruisers--comes to mind, although that trope probably doesn’t apply to Blake.)

I couldn’t resist thinking about Jesus within this whole context, because Jesus inverts the trope: his tantalizingly mysterious, missing years were before his public life rather than afterward. Was he studying Torah while working at the carpenter shop? Did he travel to the east to meet with the great sages, or south to Jerusalem to the Temple scholars, or still farther south to the Dead Sea and the Essene community? What was his thought process as he embarked on his ministry?

Non-canonical accounts of Jesus’ early years do exist, but I wonder if the paucity of information about Jesus’ early years has a theological, if not historical explanation: all that we have been given to know (canonically) about Jesus is directed toward our salvation.

Now, of course, Jesus is withdrawn from us physically (to allude to an essay by the theologian Eberhard Juengel, “The Effectiveness of Christ Withdrawn”). But that is a wonderful thing, not a disappointment! Absent physically, he is closer to us than ever. In fact, as he promises in John’s gospel, he has to leave his disciples physically in order that they may receive the Holy Spirit and thus know him more intimately and reliably than ever before.

Jesus may certainly seem missing to us during times of trouble or faith-struggle, but he is nevertheless very close by. His eventual second coming will complete that which has already accomplished: an amazing salvation.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Not Funny but Interesting, part 2

During Lent and the upcoming Easter season, I’m working on a curriculum project called “Faithful Christian Citizens.” The project’s sponsors and I hope this material will encourage Christians to be cognizant of important world issues as a way to be faithful to the "two great commandments." The following is nothing more deep than some personal note-taking, "outtakes" from my project. I find these topics interesting as I try to follow and understand what’s going on in the country.

For instance, I read an interesting article in The Economist, in which the author discusses some of the recent congressional impasses and notes that “it is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favors. If, instead of handing of health care to his party’s left wing, he had lived up to his promise to be a bipartisan president and courted conservatives by offering, say, reform of the tort system, he might have got health care through; by giving ground on nuclear power, he may now stand a chance of getting a climate bill. Once Mr Clinton learned the advantages of co-operating with the Republicans, the country was governed better.” (Feb. 20-26, 2010 issue, p. 11). (I noticed a similar complaint online today:

In another article that I‘ve read, this one in Newsweek (March 1, 2010), author Peter Beinhart discusses how the GOP has, since the beginning of the Clinton presidency, adopted the “government is the problem” strategy. This was not a GOP strategy during the Reagan and Bush 41 years; for instance, moderate Republicans “helped cut big bipartisan deals like the 1986 tax-reform bill, which simplified the tax code, and the 1990 Clean Air Act, which set new limits on pollution.” At the beginning of the Clinton years, “the Gingrich Republicans learned that the vicious circle [of filibustering] worked.” What that means is that GOP congressmen “have told Americans that they can’t trust government with their health care, and once again, their own actions [of halting legislation and using polarizing tactics] have helped convinced Americans that what they say is true.” But since they are the party out of power, voter anger becomes directed at the Democrats (pp. 22-23; the whole article is pp. 20-24).

What about the matter of “big government”? The promise of tax cuts and small government is still an ideal for many people.

McClatchy correspondent Steven Thomma notes that President Reagan set a vision for a smaller government. Unfortunately President Reagan, too, found the vision difficult to achieve; during his administration government spending increased by about 69%, especially because of the 92% increase in defense spending. Thomma goes on to note that, under Reagan, “the size of the government as a share of total economic production had shrunk slightly, from 22.2 percent to 21.2 percent.” Under President Clinton, defense spending slowed considerably and thus government spending decreased. That, plus the strong economy of the 1990s, means that “government’s size as a percentage of the economy dropped from 21.4 percent to 18.5 percent during the Clinton years.” Under President Bush, in turn, government spending increased 68%, connected to the 126% defense spending increase. (See his article “It only looks different,“ at

During President Reagan’s terms, the economy came out of a recession, but, as columnist Paul Krugman writes, “while the rich got much richer, there was little sustained economic improvement for most Americans. By the late 1980s, middle-class incomes were barely higher than they had been a decade before--and the poverty rate had actually risen.” In other words, the benefits of tax cuts for the wealthy did not “trickle down” to the middle class as hoped ( But I've read some other authors who argue, yes, the economy did improve, because among other things the earlier, high rate of inflation was curbed.

Politicians aren’t usually, or possibly ever candid about their own party’s agenda and history. In the same piece as above, Thomma quotes one GOP congressman who accused the Democrats of a “spending spree.” In actuality, both parties support billions of dollars of spending, but (to oversimplify) Republicans tend to give priority to spending for defense, while Democrats tend to prioritize spending for social programs like education, benefits for the needy, and so on. One could argue persuasively that both a strong military and a strong social programs are necessary for an overall healthy society: the common good for all citizens, and sound national security. One can also argue very persuasively that deficit spending hampers American economic growth, just as credit card debit hampers a family’s abilities to prosper.

Still another writer, Robert Reich, gets to the point of the matter, I think: our problem is not so much big government but “small democracy.” Public decision making should be open, voters should be able to hear appropriate debate about big issues, and leaders must be accountable to voters for their decisions. Reich worries about the secrecy that presently characterizes both the president’s programs and congressional debates, as well as the strong roll of “lobbyists representing moneyed interests” in Washington. The long-term answer is to “recommit ourselves to cleaning up democracy” (

How do you do that, however? I suppose we can become more aware of the issues (as I’m trying to become) and to write our state and federal leaders (which I haven’t done for a long time, ever since I tried to get my congresswoman not to support the Clinton impeachment). You have to be really careful about burnout and discouragement, though.

It’s simple to say, I guess, but a good “thy will be done” prayer helps me to keep perspective about the imperfections of both political parties, and to have a balanced view of things. As Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, in far scarier times than these, God has his own purposes, and God’s purposes may be wholly different from what you think they are or should be--no matter how right we think we are. Any effort from us Christians to help our democracy can start by affirming Proverbs 3:5-6.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Romantic Repertoire for the Open Road

To state the obvious: music can be a wonderful reminder of places. During the first year of our marriage, my wife Beth and I visited a book store in Frederick, Maryland, which carried a wonderful selection of LPs. (CDs had been introduced the previous year but weren't widely available.) I purchased a two-record set of Mendelssohn’s first two symphonies and also a two-record set of the other three. To this day, Mendelssohn’s music reminds me of the hills of Maryland, no matter what Scottish, Italian, and other inspirations he brought to his music. I could name several other personal examples of favorite associations, but here are just a few more.

Two less-well known composers are also nice reminders of places---actually of highways. While driving on U.S. 89 (now AZ 89) between Ash Fork and Prescott, AZ, on church-related business, I was listening to public radio and really loved a piece of music. I thought the announcer said something about mountains and the composer was “Dandee.” Since I was driving, I couldn't write down the information and hoped I could recall the name later. Eventually I figured out (I don’t remember how) that the piece was "Symphony on a French Mountain Air" by Vincent d’Indy.

D’Indy is not well known today. He lived from 1851 till 1931 and was a student of Cesar Franck. According to the source he was part of the artistic revival that included Mallarme, Causson, Saint-Saens, Degas, Rodin, Renoir, Franck, Faure, Debussy, and others. D’Indy was also a Wagner admirer (and, unfortunately, was also an anti-Semite). His devotion to tonality was one possible reason d’Indy became less known as the 20th century progressed, but today his music has been newly performed and released on the Chandos label. Other pieces that I enjoy are his “Jour d’ete a la Montagne” and his “Dyptique Mediterraneen,” partly inspired by a scenic train ride.

A few years ago my CD club carried the symphonies of Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-1890) with the encouragement that this Danish composer wrote in the tradition of Mendelssohn and Schumann. So I bought all four CDs of Gade’s eight symphonies! (I tend to do that kind of thing: if I like one piece by a composer, maybe I’ll like others. That’s why I haven’t yet carved out time to explore Mahler’s symphonies.) Gade actually was Mendelssohn’s assistant conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and became chief conductor when Mendelssohn died. Like d’Indy, Gade is not famous today, but none other than Christopher Hogwood conducted these symphonies, which now remind me of sunny but tedious drives upon Interstate 70 across Indiana and Illinois. That was the highway on which I--tired and very buzzed on Starbucks coffee--first listened to the discs. (His music isn't tedious, and in fact it filled sensate gaps as I traveled the visually familiar but unspectacular countryside.)

U.S. 89 also reminds me of Schumann’s symphonies, but I don’t remember if, as in the case of d’Indy, I heard the first symphony on NPR as I drove, or if something about the music brought me back to that landscape. Unlike these other Romantic composers Schumann is not at all obscure. His 200th birthday, soon after Chopin's, is upcoming, with articles about him promised in music magazines, and John Eliot Gardiner has conducted the symphonies on a recent CD set.

Schumann’s music also reminds me of holiday drives with my wife during the 1980s as we traveled to visit parents. We’d randomly purchased a cheap little cassette called "Brass: 3 Centuries of Golden Sounds" for our road trips. We loved this anthology (on the Allegretto label, now on CD); it's a nice selection of mostly baroque and classical repertoire by Scheidt, Vivaldi, L. and W.A. Mozart, Handel, Haydn, Gabrielli, and others. Schumann’s piece "Konzertstueck for 4 Horns" contrasts stylistically with the older repertoire, but it’s the concluding piece and thus isn’t jarring.

Whenever I play some of this music, I still like to recall that expansive Arizona countryside which I've not seen for several years. What was the name of that composer, and what was the title of that piece, as I approached Bill Williams Mountain to the north? What did the announcer say? Dandee? Just an hour and a half to home.