Category Archives: Books

Sabbath as noun

“The Sabbath, I said, is not only an idea. It is also something you keep. With other people.”
- Judith Shulevitz

This is an excellent post by Lavonne Neff, one of my new favorite reads. Like her, I commend Abraham Heschel’s book on the Sabbath to anyone, and hearing her rank this new offering as second to his in the must-read category certainly gets my attention.Unlike her, I have never been a part of a faith community that takes the Sabbath seriously. I have been with people who don’t even mention the idea apart from some Sunday School lessons given to children, as well as with people for whom the Sabbath has evolved to a verb, as in “I am sabbathing today”, with the emphasis on the “I”.

The understanding of the Sabbath as an individual pursuit in contrast with a communal celebration has bothered me. Shulevitz’s book appears to address this, and I am eagerly placing my Amazon order now.

Where?

Mercy has a new curiosity surrounding death. She has brought it up more frequently lately, and I have found myself talking to her about death and resurrection and heaven. I just read an interesting interview with N.T. Wright (and have been following this same discussion on Scot McKnight’s blog as he is currently reviewing Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope) where he shares a bit about Christian beliefs surrounding heaven.

In discussing the sources of our misconceptions about heaven in the interview, Wright says this:

It has, originally, to do with the translation of Jewish ideas into Greek. The New Testament is deeply, deeply Jewish, and the Jews had for some time been intuiting a final, physical resurrection. They believed that the world of space and time and matter is messed up, but remains basically good, and God will eventually sort it out and put it right again. Belief in that goodness is absolutely essential to Christianity, both theologically and morally. But Greek-speaking Christians influenced by Plato saw our cosmos as shabby and misshapen and full of lies, and the idea was not to make it right, but to escape it and leave behind our material bodies. The church at its best has always come back toward the Hebrew view, but there have been times when the Greek view was very influential.

And in discussing why our beliefs about this matter now, he states:

If people think “my physical body doesn’t matter very much,” then who cares what I do with it? And if people think that our world, our cosmos, doesn’t matter much, who cares what we do with that? Much of “traditional” Christianity gives the impression that God has these rather arbitrary rules about how you have to behave, and if you disobey them you go to hell, rather than to heaven. What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won’t be going up there to him, he’ll be coming down here.

I realized that I have defaulted to the more “mythical” way of talking about these things with my daughter, though perhaps that is not all bad for now. At least she no longer thinks that when people die they go to be with our good friend, Kevin (and why does that make Mommy so sad?), which is progress. But I also realized in general how muddled and undeveloped our “life-after-death” theology can really be. Regardless, I’m pretty sure I want to get my hands on Wright’s book.

Could you help a sister out?

In a week, we leave for six weeks of family leave which we will spend with our families in Portland, Tillamook and Seattle. Doug walked through the dining room this morning carrying two books saying: “This is my reading for the trip.” I realized I have no clue what I should try (key word, per yesterday’s post) to read in these coming weeks. I would love to hear what people consider their “must reads” right now. I have a gift certificate at Amazon I would love to use…

Does it work?

This past week, I had the chance to read Scot McKnight’s newest book, A Community Called Atonement. It is an excellent book, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in grappling with what it means to be “saved” according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The book is a theological discussion, but as he is gifted to do, Scot makes the material engaging and accessible (one of his central metaphors is golf clubs, if that gives you a sense for what I mean).

Scot is a college professor, and in the beginning of the book, he makes this claim: “This generation of students doesn’t think the ‘I’m not perfect, just forgiven’ bumper sticker is either funny or something to be proud of. They believe atonement ought to make a difference in the here and now. Christians, they say, aren’t perfect but they ought to be different—at least they ought to be if the atonement works.”

He then goes on to tell a story of a Christian woman who worked part-time as a nurse in a Chicagoland ER as an example of what he means. He describes her encounter with a “lockdown” patient, someone violent or with psychiatric disturbances, that was brought in off the streets one night. His feet were wrapped in plastic bags, barely disguising mold-covered, puss-oozing feet. She was instructed to take him to the hazmet shower, and though the man desperately needed his feet treated and tended to with a betadine scrub and antibiotic treatment, the charge nurse pleaded with this woman to simply get him into the shower as a bare minimum.

At some point, this nurse was given a deep compassion for this man and she thought to herself: “This poor shell of a man has no one to love him…No one in the ER that day really looked at him and no one wanted to touch him. They wanted to ignore him and his broken life. But as much as I tried…I could not.”

And with this conviction, she laid out all of the tools and supplies to treat his feet, prepared warm towels and a chair, and when he was finished with the shower, she led him to the chair and she knelt down to tend his broken feet: “The room was quiet as the once-mocking security guards started to help by handing me towels. As I patted the last foot dry, I looked up and for the first time N.’s eyes looked into mine. For that moment he was alert, aware and weeping as he quietly said, ‘Thank you’. In that moment, I was the one seeing Jesus. He was there all along, right where he said he would be…”

This story has stayed with me all week, and I am finding myself regularly asking the question: are we people who believe that the atonement works? Does our head knowledge of something cosmic that took place on a cross translate to lives marked by a new spirit within that causes us to see people differently; to say yes to more than the bare minimum in coming to another’s aid; to kneel and touch what is broken and offensive, and to weep over what we see?

Last weekend, a very dear friend of ours flew down to L.A. to serve our family. Such generosity and kindness consistently characterize this friend’s life, and it is not surprising, then, that it is her copy of Scot’s book that I have sat with this week :) It is also not surprising that one of her acts of service to me was to soak and wash and massage my feet and to give me a lovely pedicure. Anyone who has been nine months pregnant before can attest to the difficulty of merely seeing one’s toenails, let alone cutting them well, and the concept of painting them is just simply out of the question at this stage. I really can’t even describe how magnificent it felt to be treated like such a queen! And every time I catch a glimpse of my glamorous toenails (the only thing glamorous about me right now, for sure!), I smile and am warmed by her thoughtfulness and love.

And while I am nothing close to the condition of the man described in Scot’s book, I can attest to the power of having someone kneel down before you and care for this most indelicate part of the body. It is very, very humbling. It is very tender. It made me want to cry.

My friend’s offering of a pedicure is an excellent picture of the sacrificial love shown by so many to me and to our family these past weeks. As I near the finish line of bed-rest, I am so struck by how radically we have been cared for and loved, and what a testimony that is to how a bunch of people’s lives have been changed and redirected, away from self and comfort and toward sacrifice and the needs of others. In our culture today, the way we have been cared for in our community here is honestly unthinkable. Not even family members will make such sacrifices oftentimes. Yet here, in a little pocket of South Central, L.A., we have experienced deeply the life of atonement: together.

It works. Thanks be to God.

Quotation of the Week

“It was a difficult book for me to write. My thought was pulled in two different directions by the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s Lamb offered for the guilty. How does one remain loyal both to the demand of the oppressed for justice and to the gift of forgiveness that the Crucified offered to the perpetrators? I felt caught between two betrayals—the betrayal of the suffering, exploited, and excluded, and the betrayal of the very core of my faith. In a sense even more disturbingly, I felt that my very faith was at odds with itself, divided between the God who delivers the needy and the God who abandons the Crucified, between the demand to bring about justice for the victims and the call to embrace the perpetrator. I knew, of course, of easy ways to resolve this powerful tension. But I also knew that they were easy precisely because they were false.”

From Miroslav Volf’s Preface to Exclusion and Embrace 

What youth need

I have had a lot of conversations recently with people around issues of ministering to youth and how that can be done most effectively. While in my hospital bed, Doug and I listened to a recording of Chap Clark’s inaugural lecture at Fuller Seminary where he brilliantly assesses the state of youth ministry in the church today (if you have never read or heard Chap before, I strongly encourage you to connect with his writing or speaking somehow–his most recent book, Hurt, is supposed to be exceptional. I plan to read it as soon as I can get a hold of a copy). His lecture got me thinking about how the church can best love and nurture youth, both within the church family, and beyond. And in my own context here, I am wondering how it is that we can best love this most vulnerable part of our community.

This past week, I also got word that one of our very dearest friends was just hired by an organization that serves at-risk kids in Portland, Oregon called Friends of the Children. While I was telling my sister about our friend’s new position and about the organization, I was struck by how unique their organizational model is. Their website describes their approach this way:

Friends of the Children was founded in 1993 by entrepreneur Duncan Campbell. Campbell was inspired by his own troubled childhood to start a revolutionary new program to help at-risk children in the same neighborhood where he grew up. Campbell designed the Friends of the Children model based on the best research available in the field of youth development. Together with a team of respected researchers, Campbell found that the single most important factor that fosters resiliency in high-risk children is a caring and consistent relationship with an adult.

The Friends of the Children model puts this research into practice by allowing high-risk children to develop caring and consistent one-on-one relationships with professional adult mentors, whom we call “Friends.”

Friends of the Children is a revolutionary mentoring program that connects our nation’s most vulnerable children with paid, professional mentors, whom we call Friends, until their high school graduation date. We help high-risk children develop the relationships, goals, and skills necessary to break the cycles of poverty, abuse, and violence in order to become contributing members of society. Each child is paired with a paid, professional Friend who spends a minimum of four hours of one-on-one time each week with him or her for the next twelve years of that child’s life. Friends permeate all areas of children’s lives: visiting their homes, collaborating with their families, supporting them at school, and accompanying them in their communities. This model enables a child to form a trusting, caring, and sustained relationship with an adult that can truly change his or her life for the better.

As I thought about my own experience in the church that raised me, I realized that my spiritual formation did not primarily come through the things that were programmatic (things which were good and necessary, in my opinion), but through that community of adults who became like other parents to me. I often hear churches wondering why the youth who are active through junior high and high school drop off and leave in young adulthood. And I wonder if the reasons are not very different from the reasons that an organization like Friends of the Children has decided to pour money into the resource of relationship rather than open up yet another youth center or tutoring program.

I ministered for seven years to at-risk youth in Chicago. I did open a drop-in center and start various after-school programs, all of which were great and needful things. But when I think about the lasting impact of those years, the thing that stands out as what really made a difference are the relationships I had with some specific kids where I invested heavily of my time and resources in just being with them.

There was the boy I drove to school every morning because he had no parents around and was living with known gang members who were trying to draw him into their lifestyle. They were happy to see him not attend school, and there was no responsible adult in the house that was going to see that he went. Those thirty minutes we spent together every morning was never in my job description, but probably had more value ultimately than the poetry club or the gospel choir programs in actually changing the course of someone’s life.

There was the kid who snuck into the dances and parties we would host on campus for the local junior high school when he was still in grade school, and who required plenty of attention (in the form of discipline, usually) once he was old enough to officially participate in our programs. It was the hours he spent in my office (again, usually discipline-related, at first) and the funny jobs I would come up with for him to do that grew a relationship where that kid became like a little brother to me. And it was that, the relationship, that ultimately changed his life (and mine!).

I could go on, but the point is this: I think that we would do well to look at our models of youth ministry and outreach and ask where these kind of life-altering relationships are happening, and figure out how we can encourage and expand that, over and above funding new staff positions and programs. I think Friends of the Children just might have something good to teach us in this area.

Joseph: the “good” brother

I usually let Mercy pick out which books she would like me to read to her when I tuck her in for her afternoon nap. Today it was the story of Joseph, or “The Egypt Story” as she called it. The book is one of a set we were given that includes the story of Noah, David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, and Moses.

When I got to the last page where Joseph stands, surrounded by his brothers who are pleading with him for mercy, I realized the strangest thing: while every other member of Joseph’s family appears Middle Eastern (dark hair and non-European features), Joseph is a totally European-looking blonde.

Doug and I often talk about the “christian” books we have been given by various people. Some of them (the non-Bible story ones like books of prayers, etc.) make an obvious attempt at representing ethnic diversity in the pictures of little girls and boys and mommies and daddies. But we have sadly noted that, on any page where Jesus is depicted with children, it is always a blonde child that is held in his arms or seated on his lap. Brown and black children are always relegated to the periphery.

I sometimes wonder how Mercy and Aaron’s worldview is affected by living where they are the ethnic minority. I will never forget one of my first trips home to Seattle after Mercy was born. We were in my home church’s nursery and she was hesitant to go to people there that she did not know. One of our good friends there who is African American came in, and Mercy turned and went straight to her. And this last trip, Aaron was utterly enamored with our pastor’s daughter (who reflects her dad’s Mexican heritage) and only wanted to be held by her.

I have spoken before of my daughter’s Cinderella fascination. I have made the observation that Cinderella has grown more blonde over the years (she has wonderful strawberry blonde hair in the movie and original Disney books, but in all the annoying “princess” paraphernalia that is now being sold, she is totally blonde). But what is interesting to me is that the two figures Mercy has selected to be “Cinderella” in our house have black hair (I won’t even speculate here about Cinderella-Tree). One of them is a cloth doll from Mexico that I bought years ago when I studied there. The doll has on a partially pink dress which, for Mercy, apparently was enough to doom her to Cinderellahood. The other is a Little People figurine that looks Asian.

Many of us had the chance to see the disturbing film made recently by a high school student that deals with self-image among black girls. The filmmaker resurrects a famous study from 1947 and shows black children consistently and heartbreakingly preferring white dolls to black ones, identifying the white dolls as “nice” and “good” while naming the black dolls as “bad”. Watching this film made me cry.

I certainly don’t know the intentions of the Christian publishing house that chose to illustrate Joseph as a Europen-looking blonde. But it actually makes my stomach feel sick.

All because of a bow-tie

I came to Fuller Seminary as a visiting student back in 1995. I had started seminary studies at North Park Theological Seminary but, having completed my undergraduate work at the college, I felt a desire for some change. I distinctly remember sitting in a Starbucks in Chicago with my trusted friend who happened to be a New Testament scholar. I had selected the courses I thought I would take at Fuller and wanted his approval.

One class I had selected was Systematic Theology III: Eschatology and Ecclesiology. Probably not a likely choice for a student who was essentially just getting started with her theological education (I think the I, II and III perhaps suggest these things should be done in order), but the professor looked intriguing to me (both the uniqueness of his name and the fact that he was wearing a bow-tie in his catalog photo), as did the subject matter. My friend gave his hearty approval and some additional recommendations for other courses I should look into.

And so it was that, a few months later, I was spending every Tuesday afternoon sipping cappuccinos (his drink of choice) with Miroslav Volf and a handful of other students after lecture (except for the day he blew us off to have a private conversation with Richard Bauckham when he guest lectured).

Now, I had heard, coming to Fuller, of students giving standing ovations to professors after a lecture. Honestly, that was a hard thing for me to picture. After our first class session, I suddenly understood. Not a Tuesday or Thursday went by when my life wasn’t shattered: shattered in a really good way. We read Moltmann’s “The Coming God,” Grenz’s “Theology for the Community of God”, excerpts from Volf’s “Exclusion and Embrace” and “Work in the Spirit”, and his manuscript for “Theirs is the Likeness.” We also read Bauckham’s “Theology of the Book of Revelation” which remains one of the most influential books I have ever read.

So here’s the confession (because I am so utterly sure that he will never read this website): while I was at Fuller, I lived with my sister. We shared a tiny bedroom in the home of some very gracious friends in Claremont. She had this very old computer set up for me in our little bedroom, and that is where I would write my papers, often in the wee hours after late-night shifts at Macy’s. The name of my hard-drive? “I love Miroslav”.

So it thrills me to read and hear of his continued influence, and the ways his “standing ovations” so to speak are now given even more widely.  By the time I made it back to Fuller to actually complete my degree he was long gone. I remain so grateful for the three months when every Tuesday and Thursday Miroslav Volf had something to say to me.

Top five

My friend, Tyler Watson, has a great question posted on his blog today: if you had to name your “Top Five” books of the Bible, what would they be?

Here’s the answer I posted:

1.  Matthew: The book of Matthew has been my favorite gospel since the fourth grade. That was when I started reading the Bible seriously, and Matthew is where I began. God changed me deeply, even at that young age, through that text. I was also in the Matthew class with Beaton and it only confirmed for me my deep love for this book.
2. Revelation: As Darrell Johnson once preached, this book reminds me that, no matter how much things look to the contrary, “Jesus’ gonna win.” As an urban minister, this book is a lifeline for me.
3. Ezekiel: the images of moving from death to life by the grace of God
4. Isaiah: how justice and worship function together
5. Deuteronomy: how to live as someone who remembers