31 December 2015

Married, with Housemates

A recent article entitled, "Married, with roommates: why my wife and I choose to live in a group house" brings up some of the reasons that I think it good to live in community while being married.

Thomas Burnett notes:
"For us, living in a group house was not a phase to grow out of but a lifestyle choice that valued people over privacy. Sure, we lose certain freedoms — we can't walk around the kitchen naked, for instance — but what we get in return is many lighthearted conversations, laughter, and an opportunity to get to know people on a deep level. As Roberts wrote in his essay, "The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact." In a city where we have to plan coffee dates with people two weeks in advance, a group house can readily foster spontaneity.
In addition, I think these living arrangements enhance rather than detract from our marriage. Living with others, we don't put pressure on each other to be our only conversation partner. Without that burden, we are free to enjoy each other's company rather than depending on it to satisfy all of our social needs."

Near the end of the article, he highlights some of the things he and his wife needed to do to make community sustainable. These are wise and practical insights about the need to be clear about expectations and honest about human nature.

A final thought - words to ponder regarding my own priorities in sharing space:
"It's one thing to split the rent and another thing to enjoy life together. Sharing utility bills is different from sharing meals. Am I cooking at home just to stay within my food budget or to deepen my relationships? Is my primary motivation for living with housemates just to save money or to foster community? Would I be willing to sacrifice some individual privacy in exchange for developing a shared social identity? People answer these questions quite differently, and it doesn't take much time of living with others in order to learn what they value most."

This post has been cross-posted at The Firehouse Community.

29 December 2015

5th day of Christmas: Jesus' birth in a Cave?

Photo taken from Google Art Project/ Wikimedia http://bit.ly/22vw277
The icon of Jesus' Birth depicts Jesus being born in a cave. Yet, most nativity scenes have Jesus being born in a stable.

Some thoughts on what's going on:

 1. Thanks to a very knowledgeable and hospitable volunteer at the Ikon Museum in Kampen, Matthijs and I learned quite a bit about icons, including how icons are all copies of a primary icon. The primary/original nativity icon is quite old, so part of the nativity scene (especially the part about the cave and Joseph being visited by Satan in the bottom right) is taken from a description in the gospel of James [before it was determined to be apocryphal (and not written by James).]

2. The gospel of Luke actually doesn't claim that Jesus was born in a stable. Luke 2 simply says that Jesus was laid in a manger (feeding trough) because there was no room for him in the inn. As we associate mangers with stables, our picture of Jesus' birth is shaped by what we know of stables today.

3. An old friend of mine visited Israel recently and points out on her blog that animals were normally kept in caves. As Brenda puts it, "The “stable” we were introduced to was entirely different [from the nice wooden building we usually imagine]. The Israeli “stable” we sat in was a cold, dark cave carved into a rough mountainside, with “traces” of animals everywhere.
Isolated, out of town, and in the wilderness."

The blog is worth a read, especially for Brenda's reflection on the lack of room. Perhaps it had less to do with everything being full and more to do with who Mary and Joseph were. Unmarried but pregnant. Pregnant but a virgin. How could there be room?

The original Christmas is likely different than we often imagine it to be. Seeing the messiness in the original story, though, makes Jesus' birth more miraculous - not just because it means He became truly human like me but also because it reminds us of how God is with us in the messiness of our lives today.  
To read more about the messiness of Christmas, I recommend Ashley Van Dragt's article at The Well.

28 December 2015

Advent and Christmas: Already and not yet

Advent is one of my favourite times of year, as it declares a truth that my heart knows: the world is full of darkness and sin. The kingdom of God is very much not yet present here, and we need the coming of Christ the King (For more about this, see my thoughts from Advent 2012: "Advent in the darkest time of the year)."

Advent this year brought with it much darkness. Shortly after Advent began, there was a mass shooting in San Bernardino. Within America, there were continued calls to prevent refugees from entering the country alongside of hatred towards Muslims. Amidst the darkness - a darkness where "across the country, Musims report that their mosques are being vandalized, that they are receiving death threats by the hour, and that women in head coverings are being harassed when they go out in public" - Rachel Held Evans spoke a prophetic word that we all need to speak up against "violent rhetoric against minorities." I found the events and rhetoric overwhelming, even as the response to Evans' words and a peace march held in Dearborn are signs of hope.

Christmas is a celebration of how, because of Christ's first coming, the kingdom of God is already here on earth. We celebrate that "Christ rules the world with truth and grace." The darkness, no matter how strong it might appear, is not winning and can not win.

As my heart resonates with Advent, it is not surprising that I find it hard at times to live into the triumphalism of Christmas. Fortunately, there are 12 days of Christmas, so my heart has some time to adjust. Hopefully spending more time with Mary's Magnificat will help, contemplating the King who "scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty."

01 December 2015

So maybe I do preach?

"I don't preach" was one of the things that I made clear when I interviewed for my current position as pastor for Campus Edge. I also had no intention on getting ordained, although I did say I was willing to reconsider if it became obvious that being ordained would allow me to do my job better.

Last month, I officially started the process of seeking ordination within the Christian Reformed Church. The process involves preaching/writing two sermons (one on an assigned text), filling out quite a bit of paperwork and going through at least one interview with the candidacy committee connected to Calvin Theological Seminary. If all goes well, my desire to be ordained would be approved at Synod in June 2016 and then confirmed by my local classis (another interview, including another sermon) in October 2016. Although this might seem long, it's actually fairly quick: my MDiv degree from Calvin Seminary ensured that I have all the requirements for ordination.

Becoming a minister - and preaching, which is probably the most public part of the job - has never been something I've wanted or felt called to do (I went to Seminary because I loved studying the Bible). Back when I was at Seminary, I was an unusual voice in saying that I wasn't sure whether women ought to be ordained. Because I felt no sense of God calling me to preach, and I doubted whether I even ought to be doing so, preaching and writing sermons - the few times I had to do it for class - were a horrible experience, as it felt like I was contorting myself to be someone I was not. Hence the adamant claim that "I don't preach." I managed to complete my required 10 sermons by teaching at several InterVarsity events and by speaking several times at the Saturday night outreach gatherings of my church.

This past Thursday - (American) Thanksgiving Day - I preached in a church sanctuary for the first time ever. The previous feelings I'd had on preaching - that I was forcing myself to do something I was not called to do - were replaced with a deep sense of love for the biblical text (affirming my calling as a biblical scholar) and a desire to share the word of God with God's people (affirming the pastoral side of me that has been formed through being a pastor at Campus Edge). It was a joy to share my love for the text, and I have deeply appreciated people's reassurance that the word of God had indeed spoken to them.

29 November 2015

Singleness as good and bad

I've thought a lot about singleness over the years, and so I appreciate good articles about singleness. Dayna Vreeken at YALT recently wrote a good article honestly acknowledging both the good and bad of singleness. I especially appreciate how she stresses how being single is mixed: some things are hard but there is also much joy and good that also should be acknowledged. 

The following are some of the great points that she elaborates on:
It is time we acknowledge being single can, at times, be hard. This is not unique to being single, being married too contains annoyances and pain. But, it is often only acknowledged over coffee, beer, or ‘hallmark’ holidays in back corners of rooms. There is almost no room to truly mourn the pain or difficulty of singleness. So, let’s acknowledge it. . . . Singleness can be painful because often, people who are single expected their lives to go a bit differently. . . . many people pity those who are single rather than extending empathy, hospitality, and trying to truly understand what being single is like for each person. . . . Depending where you live, it is easier to fit in culturally and socially if you are married and/or have kids. . . . There is a notion in society that there is a relational, aka maturity, ladder. . .
It needs to be acknowledged wholeheartedly that being single can also be a beautiful, good, life-giving calling we have received from God.. . .  Being not married is a gift because life is always a gift—just like any other station in life, there is beauty in being a single person. . . One example of beauty is that being single breeds a necessary interdependence. Since I do not have one constant, ever-with-me partner in my life, I do not have the luxury/temptation of accidentally becoming immersed in one person and so, the older I get, the broader and deeper my community gets. . .
 Even if you're not single, I encourage you to read the article. It's a good reminder for those of us (especially in the church) who tend to think of marriage as the norm.

28 November 2015

Us, them and the extensiveness of grace

After years of studying linguistics and the Old Testament prophets, I have learned to love grammar. There are layers in the text that we don't always see, and grammar is one of the ways that helps us look closely at the text to discover what it means.

I spent the last few weeks studying Ephesians 1. It's a wonderful text, full of praise to God and praise for what Christ has done to save us. There's only one difficulty, and it's significant - the difficulty in understanding and appreciating predestination and election. Many people - both inside and outside of the church - are bothered when they hear the idea that God has elected some (some being Christians, of course). It sounds like Christians think we are better and actually deserve more (even though the text and the Bible do not say that - and most Christians do know and believe that). It's just so easy to get into us vs. them thinking. We are special, they are not.

Looking at the text of Ephesians 1, there's also an us vs. them going on, or more specifically we vs you. In verses 11­-14, the text goes from talking about us – we were chosen in verse 11 - to you in verse 13 – and you also were included in Christ. In the prophets, this switching between them and you is a way for the writer to make sure that the people hearing the text also realize they are included in the message. The switch from them to you can be rather startling, kind of like a teacher calling your name in the middle of a class and asking you to repeat what they just said when you were obviously falling asleep.

Perhaps some of this is going on – that the people hearing or reading this text – are being reminded that you, too, should be praising. At the same time, I would expect us automatically to include ourselves when the text talks about us, especially when it's good news (cf gospel in v. 13)!

So what else might be going on with this switch in pronouns? The you in the text here – the ones to whom the book was being written ­ were Gentiles. The inclusion of the Gentiles in the gospel did not happen smoothly, as can be seen in the book of Acts, especially chapter 15.

As Christians we often focus on election begin about how good I am. Yet, the people hearing the text would have heard again and again that they had NOT been chosen. The Jews were the ones chosen, and not Gentiles. The switch here from we to you thus says not only that they have been included, but also us. When it comes to election that switching of us and them makes all the difference, it's the idea that even I got chosen. I did not deserve it, in any way shape or form, but yet even though I thought I should be excluded I got to be included. It's like getting into med school after being rejected by three other schools, not just this year but also last year.

The text here in Ephesians is pointing to grace being much bigger than we expected. Paul is saying that people who we expect to be excluded – like me, because I know I don't deserve it ­are actually included. We have been chosen, even though we have done nothing to deserve it. If we let this good news settle in, how can this not turn us towards God in praise and thanksgiving and a desire to follow Him?

Much of this text was excerpted from a sermon on Ephesians 1 preached Thanksgiving Day 2015 at River Terrace Church.

04 November 2015

Abstinence in a culture obsessed with sex

A friend recently passed on an article about what happens when men pledge abstinence until marriage. What intrigued her about the article was that the study about the effects of abstinence was done by those outside of Christian circles and passed on to her by someone who had no association with evangelicals. This seems to indicate that how Christians approach sex is thus of interest to people outside of Christian circles, albeit most likely less because of an interest in Christianity and more because of a fascination with sex.

The article confirms and highlights how our culture is overly focused on sex. What might surprise some people is that the same is true in evangelical circles. Only the focus is not about the sex that these unmarried men were getting but the sex that they were not getting. Abstinence is seen to bring with it many challenges and a strong need for accountability. The problem, though, is that it's only men that seem to be struggling so much with sexual desire, reinforcing a damaging untruth far too common in evangelical circles: women are nonsexual and men are highly sexualized beings.

The second half of the article, which talks about what happened after these single men get married, points to an area where Christians could improve: being more realistic about how complicated sex is in the midst its goodness. When the Bible talks about sex, it does so in a highly practical way, focusing especially on appropriate boundaries and how not to hurt others through the use of sex. This realistic view of sex, instead of detracting from the goodness, actually contributes to sex being more good. How else can we learn to build healthy and good relationships if we're not willing to talk about how countercultural sex within Christianity really is? Sex and sexuality is not primarily something to obsess about (either through abstinence or within marriage) but instead is messy, complicated and even ordinary (for more about this, see Real Sex by Lauren Winner).

14 October 2015

Remaining in church: Thoughts from a gay Catholic

I find the rhetoric of Christians around sexuality to be problematic. This is not because I disagree with the positions of my church (although I would like to re-word the statement related to homosexuality), but because I think many have been hurt, both within the church and outside of it,  by how many Christians talk about homosexuality and treat those with same-sex attractions. I think it's hard for those who face same-sex attraction to remain within the church, and I am thankful for voices that address this.

I have appreciated the voices of Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet. I expect that some find Hill's call to celibacy to be too much of a sacrifice but Hill also provides a very strong voice for the necessity of good friendships to help those who have been pushed into celibacy.

Eve Tushnet is a slightly different voice, and perhaps a slightly more controversial one (at least from what I have read of her blog). Nonetheless, I want to share her words from a recent blog post, as I think her words recognize the church as the body of Christ and the way that we are formed to be more like Christ. One ought not to dismiss her easily. At the same time, the Church is made up of broken, sinful people, and it is not always certain, even with God's protection and care of the church, whether everything taught and practiced within the church is good. 

The following are Tushnet's words:
We need to revive the role of the “Bad Catholic.” Being a bad Catholic can be very, very good for you; it’s a sign that you accept the Church as something (someone, our Mother) outside you and bigger than you, who gives your life its structure even when you can’t/won’t live entirely within that structure. (How many tears are shed because it’s so hard to tell can’t from won’t….) Being a bad Catholic means being assessed by the Church–accepting Her view of you, even if you accept it wincingly or ironically or in confused exhaustion, “Master, to whom shall we go?“–instead of judging Her. Her judgments of you will be more merciful than yours of Her, anyway.
You only get the spiritual benefits of being a bad Catholic if you take the “bad” part seriously. If you minimize the gravity of sin you lose the reminder it brings of our dependence on God; the more trivial the sin the less humility is provoked.
There’s obviously a danger of provoking self-hatred instead of humility by talking this way, but the literary figure of the “bad Catholic” calls up compassion and identification rather than judgment in readers. Maybe you should show the same compassion to him when he’s you.
 To read more of her writing, visit her blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet

07 October 2015

Thank you, Lord, September is over.

I think that has been my prayer this past week: "Thank-you, Lord, that September is over." I suspect that is the prayer of all campus ministers everywhere. We are busy with starting up the season, meeting new people, hoping and praying that new people will join, following up after them, alongside of following up with folks who've participated longer in the ministry.

I am thankful that things in my life are starting slowly to return to normal, at least as normal as possible. We have mostly settled in our new house, and the season of campus ministry has developed more of a rhythm. New folk are becoming regulars, and I'm delighting in what they bring to the ministry. And I'm finding enough time and space again to remember how much I delight in getting to be a campus pastor.

05 September 2015

Coming Home to Community

Community is like coming home: it's about having a space where all are welcomed and there is joy in being family together. As I think about this community adventure we're embarking on, I hope that we will be described as the sort of a place that feels like coming home.

Despite the fact that the living room is still somewhat in the chaos of moving (the picture was from a week ago, and things have improved), the firehouse community has already felt like coming home to us. After having lived in an intentional community in Amsterdam (Oudezijds 100) for a number of years, we have longed to find something similar here in Lansing. Even parking our car is like coming home:
The car was originally owned by a fire brigade and we park in front of pictures of saints - John Calvin, Jean Vanier, Harriet Tubman, Oscar Romero, St Patrick, Wendell Barry, and Flannery O'Connor. 

Lastly, the church that has become our new landlords cleaned up our house, scouring the oven, painting the walls, and weeding the flower beds. They even gave us leftovers for moving in and planted flowers in the window boxes!

Having been welcomed so well to this new home, it feels good and fitting that we welcome others and do all we can to make them feel at home. Starting next week we hope to have more people over and join us in embarking on the adventure of community, including having times of prayer and potlucks!

29 August 2015

Matthijs, the cat rescuer

This morning while I was out working, Matthijs sent me the following picture from our new house:

Considering all of the boxes that Matthijs has unpacked in the last few days, it shouldn't have surprised me that he would have sent me a picture of boxes. However, I'd have expected him to take a picture of the zone of boxes that were in the corner for much of today and yesterday.

But this picture wasn't really about the boxes, so much as it was about how the boxes were piled - and where they reached. Because this was no ordinary stack of boxes: it was a Jerry rescue tower.

Somehow Jerry had managed to climb into the ceiling area (most likely via the stairway to the roof). Matthijs, being the gracious person that he is (and because he knows I love the pea-brained cat, and Jerry makes an impressive amount of noise when he's distressed), rescued him from his predicament.

When we moved into the house, we blessed the whole place, although we might have missed the ceiling. Matthijs did manage to bless the cat with holy water, so perhaps the ceiling is now indirectly blessed?

22 August 2015

Relationships, power and abuse

I have been reading a delightful and insightful book by Margaret Kim Peterson and Dwight N. Peterson, entitled Are You Waiting for "The One"? (IVP, 2011). The book is born of their experience teaching a (senior) college level class on marriage and the sub-title of the book, "Cultivating Realistic, Positive Expectations for Christian Marriage," explains quite well the focus of the book. I have found it a helpful book: both in terms of pastoring people in their twenties and in receiving encouragement (and some challenges) for my own marriage.

I have appreciated how they cover such a wide variety of topics in a very sensible way. For example, they note how many people today do not know how to do have good, solid friendships, which is a detriment to marriages. Not only does this make it more difficult to have a good relationship with one's partner, it also means that the partner is seen as the only one able to meet one's need for any kind of healthy connection, which places an overwhelming burden on a marriage. Furthermore, it causes a lot of loneliness for those single (Wesley Hill's book, Spiritual Friendship (Brazos Press, 2015) is a wonderful book for those wanting to explore how Christians ought to invest more in friendships).

I especially learned from their thoughts on headship in marriage. I have grown up in fairly conservative circles and have been taught that the man was the head of the spiritual household (as per Ephesians 5). Although the idea of headship has been interpreted in many positive ways, where the sacrificial nature of Christ's love for the church is emphasized and it is clear that the man is listening well to the woman and making a decision that includes her wisdom, I still feel somewhat uncomfortable about the concept of headship. The two quotes below from the Petersons help me understand a bit better why Christian teaching about headship can be problematic:
Mutuality "takes a willingness to talk with one another and listen to one another, for long enough that it can become clear what the issues are, what the feelings and desire of both spouses are, and what some possible plans of action might be. Headship as decision making, by contrast, can seem quick and easy and far less personally demanding. Husband and wife don't really even have to work together: he just does his job and decides, she does her job and goes along, and they're done. And that is exactly the problem. They haven't actually dealt with their differences; they've just done an end run around them. They are no more united when they are done than they were when they began." pages 94-95. 
There is "one more unpleasant truth about the control-and-acquiescence mode of male-female relationships. Defining male headship as control and female submission as acquiescence is not just misguided; it is dangerous. By idealizing rigidly defined gender roles, assigning power in relationships disproportionately to me, and encouraging both men and women to see this as spiritually appropriate and desirable, a theological ideology for abuse in intimate relationships is set in place." page 95.
The Petersons have identified for me aspects of headship that make me realize why I ought to be uncomfortable with it. Headship gives an excuse to avoid actual communication and decision making together and thus avoid how working together can and should bring people closer together. Secondly, headship tends to move the focus to being about power, instead of on what marriage should be more focused on: mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21), respecting each other, loving each other, and nourishing and caring for the other.

21 August 2015

In hopes of community

This past year, Matthijs and I came to the conclusion that we'd really like to live in some kind of intentional community again. Finding a way to do that has been a challenge, though: do we buy a house and then sublet a room or two? Buy a duplex or 4-plex and rent out part of it to people willing to join us in trying to do intentional community? Does it include becoming foster parents? Or do we hope for something more along the lines of new monasticism or the catholic worker, even though such communities seem to be few and far between?

Besides the question of how is the question of when. Our lease ends at the end of August, making that an obvious time to start on a new adventure of community.

Next week we move into "The Firehouse," with the hope and intention of participating in the re-invigoration of the intentional community that used to live in the building. There are two apartments upstairs, which can comfortably hold 5 people. There are 2 people already living there, and we are excited to work together with them in this crazy adventure of community. On top of that, there is already an established community, connected to a church plant that was held in the firehouse building, that cares about reaching out to the neighbourhood. There is also an established church, also connected to that church plant, that is taking over the building. This church is very open to seeing how their own hopes and visions related to an alternative worship group and their ministry to young adults might be able to work alongside with the intentional community that will be living upstairs.

We're excited about this new adventure we're embarking on - of having our living situation be more conducive to living out community. At the same time, in the last few weeks I've been reminded of how much we already are surrounded by a community of people who care about us. These are some of the ways in which I've experienced that care:
- being asked about how it is going (including asking specifically about the Firehouse and wanting to hear about how my family is doing with my dad having health difficulties this last month);
- having others inquiring about my dissertation (and recognize that's a complicated question), but also simply people willing to plan writing dates together;
- being encouraged and supported in challenging times;
- recognizing others desire that things go well both with me and with Matthijs and that we are both using our gifts here;
- experiencing the passion of others for the work of Campus Edge and who are more than willing to come alongside me (and both encourage and challenge me) in the hopes that by so doing the ministry  might be better.

My hope of having more community in my life has helped me become more thankful (and even more hopeful and expectant) as I recognize how God has already been answering that prayer.

20 July 2015

Shepherding and sheep

The words "my sheep listen to my voice" (John 10:27) have been tossed around our house lately. The sheep, though, refers to Jerry, the cat. Matthijs has been finding it a challenge to find him and, if necessary, herd him inside the house when we leave. I, however, have managed to have the cat sitting on my lap 5 minutes after coming home, even though Matthijs had been searching for him for awhile as he was trying to leave the house.

It is not surprising that yesterday's Scriptures that focused on shepherding stood out to me:
Jeremiah 23:1-4: “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord."
Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd....  
Mark 6:34: "When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things."
We have been striving at Campus Edge to become clearer about our mission, including and especially who we are trying to reach. Who are our sheep? Who are the sheep without a shepherd? What are the lost sheep that we should leave the other 99 for? And am I, like the priest who gave the sermon, willing to look hard at how and where I have been failing in task of shepherding, in order to prevent the sheep from being scattered?

I do not know the immediate answers to those questions, as they are hard ones. I know that I am saddened by the degree in which I have reached out and ministered to faculty this past year, as well as those who are not Christians. I have found it hard even to find ways to reach out to those who do not seek us out. I do not know how to balance my desire to shepherd and love those who have been given to me - the ones who have sought out Campus Edge - with a growing conviction that the ministry of Campus Edge needs to focus at least as much on those struggling and getting lost, as there are so many ways to get lost, both as a Christian within the academy and as an academic within the church.

I am thankful to be reminded of the challenges of taking on the role of shepherding. It gives space for all of my feelings - frustrations, anger, sadness, joy, overwhelmedness, and more -  related to my role of shepherding and those being lost. And it makes it very obvious how desperately I need the help, prayers, and encouragement of those around me, as well as being challenged to be faithful to my task as shepherd and to completely rely on the Lord as my shepherd.

16 July 2015

Christianity and the environment

One of the things that continues to puzzle me is why people, in the name of Christianity, are against environmentalism. I believe there are good and valid arguments for Christians to argue that homosexual relationships are not good (according to the Bible) and that the world came about through creation (as opposed to evolution). I can even technically understand why people would argue that socialism is not part of God's good order (although as a Canadian and Dutch citizen, I honestly don't really get why Christians argue that socialism is bad).

But I can think of no good reason why people are against creation care. I can think of several bad reasons: laziness, greed, indifference to others, and/or belief that God only cares about souls and is going to destroy the world (this is a misreading of the Bible).

A recent article, "Faith-based arguments that deal with climate change are a smoke screen, that mask the real problem," reminded me again of my frustration related to this issue. Katharine Hayhoe, who is interviewed, does a wonderful job explaining some of what's going on. The following is a quote giving a rather scathing, but enlightening, assessment of why people bring God into their argument:
"I looked into quotes from politicians, and what struck me was a vast number of politicians who invoke God when they’re saying that climate change isn’t real. Why are they invoking God? Because you don’t want to attack somebody’s faith, or belief. It’s very politically incorrect in our culture today to attack somebody’s faith, especially the Christian faith. Almost 80 percent of people in the United States call themselves Christian. . . . [Sen. James] Inhofe himself said to Rachel Maddow, I think three years ago, “I used to think this all was true until I found out how much it cost to fix it.”  But he’s not out there saying, “I wish this wasn’t true, but it’s too expensive.” He’s saying, “God wouldn’t let this happen.” And why is he saying that? Because it’s a lot more politically acceptable to invoke a faith-based argument, when the real reason, at the bottom of it, is my ideology will not permit me to allow the government to put a price on carbon and its subsidies. My ideology will not permit me to consider the greater good, as opposed to short-term gain. But you can’t really come out and say those things. Those are not very attractive, appealing things to say. Or very Christian things."
As distressing as it is that so many hurtful and inaccurate messages made by Christians that are so often picked up in the American media, I am thankful that are people like Hayhoe who are providing a balanced counterargument (also in the name of Christianity). 

07 July 2015

Waiting to process

A blog I read described really well how I process things. The author attributes much of the way she processes to her being personality type INFJ (Meyer-Briggs). Being fairly similar in personality (I'm an INFP), her words resonated with me, so I'm including them here:

"I’m an INFJ (if you’re into that whole Meyers-Briggs thing) and in times of conflict or difficulty, we withdraw – big time. We go deeply inward and don’t emerge until we’ve settled whatever has been ailing us, until we have developed a nice story with a bow on the top. This is the great frustration of the ones who love me, I hear. I withdraw, I shut down, I retreat in times of conflict both external and internal." - Sarah Bessey
I haven't figured out how I can do this better, at least in a way that doesn't seem to shut out those around me. Sarah Bessey gives some wisdom about how she has learned to deal better with her relationships and this aspect of her personality, but I haven't figured out if her way is a good fit for me. For now it is enough for me to understand and recognize that this way of processing is part of who I am. That, for me, is the first step towards understanding how to allow myself to be the person I am while also wondering what should be shifted or changed in order for life to be better for myself and those around me.

19 June 2015

The problem with the homeless

Several times in the last few weeks, I've felt like people around me have seen the homeless as a problem, and preferably a problem that can be fixed or gotten rid of. It disturbs me, and I'm not entirely sure how to respond.

When I told someone about the incident with Tarra, she mentioned that some people might respond by commenting on how I should move to a better neighbourhood. In other words, I should do my best to get away from the homeless or battered folks.

At my neighbourhood's last meeting we talked about the homeless. The neighbourhood (Eastside Lansing) is close to downtown Lansing and has a number of spaces like underpasses, parks, and trails where homeless folk tend to gather. We also have a hospital and a number of homeless shelters in our neighbourhood or on the border of it. There's also a couple of busier intersections where folks ask for money. It's thus hard to live in the neighbourhood and not notice that there are homeless folks here in Lansing. That's something to be thankful for – they are our neighbours, and we should see them. The challenge, however, is how one responds to the homeless.

When a bunch of homeless folks take over your shanty in the backyard and use it as a makeshift toilet, this is obviously disgusting and a problem. When people shoot up heroin in public bathrooms and leave dirty needles, this is unsafe and a problem. When people are running into the street to ask for money, this is dangerous and a problem. Perhaps giving to those at the corner would help, except those asking for money at a corner are not necessarily even homeless but instead might be begging for cash because it's easier and makes more money than a low-income job. One can see how it's easy to see how it's the homeless themselves who become the problem, a problem that needs to be gotten rid of. But I wonder if instead of the homeless being the problem, the problem is really how we treat them and the systems we have set up. Are there not things to do to make life better for those currently on the street and those with whom they interact?

I've been volunteering at a homeless shelter about once a month for awhile now. I'm not sure if it's part of the solution, but it's part of my trying to see and know the homeless for who they are. I'm not sure about the theological idea that God has a preference for the poor, but I do believe I have something to learn from these folks who understand what it's like to be truly needy. As I hand out food to the men at the shelter – food which they don't get to choose the quality of or even the quantity of – they are polite, gracious and thankful. On top of that, there are always guys who are willing to help out when we run short of volunteers – glad to help out whenever. Knowing my own selfishness and my annoyance for people who don't show up or do what they promised, I am challenged by their example.

It seems natural to me to try to converse with these men, trying to appreciate them for who they are, encourage them if I can, as well as to be encouraged and further challenged by them. You can imagine my surprise (and frustration) when the last time I was volunteering one of the homeless men helping out was reprimanded by the staff for talking to me, being told he's not to converse with the (real) volunteers. The reasoning was to discourage the men from getting the wrong idea about how a female volunteer might be interested in them or wanting some kind of relationship. Despite this being a Christian homeless shelter, it seemed like the homeless guy was pretty much blatantly told he was the problem. How do I fight against that? How do I tell them not to blame the guys at the shelter when such a situation, in my eyes, is more the fault of not training naive volunteers or on account of a neglecting to create and enforce healthy boundaries by both the volunteer and the staff all those noticing the conversations? And how do I say that I find it disturbingly unchristian to treat the homeless like a problem that needs fixing, whether by having them be kept in their place or having them be forced (before receiving dinner) to hear a sermon that often focuses on how they need to accept Jesus into their heart? As I jokingly told Matthijs, the homeless could probably use a lot less Jesus in their hearts and a lot more Jesus on the streets. And in this case, I'm not sure it's the homeless that need Jesus the most. Matthew 25 suggests that it is through helping the homeless that people help Jesus. I wonder how it'd change the conversation if we saw the homeless less as problems and more as Jesus.

17 June 2015

Strange chronology in the book of Judges

Although I've learned that the stories in Old Testament prophetic books aren't necessarily chronological, I remain a little surprised when things in the historical books seem out of order. Two incidents in the book of Judges jumped out at me.

The book begins with saying “after Joshua died, such and such happened.” Seeing as the book of Joshua ends with his death, this fits chronologically. The only problem is that Joshua appears in the book of Judges in chapter 2, alive and well enough to send out the tribes to their inheritance. He then dies and is buried. You can explain this by saying that chapter 2 is simply telling what had happened previously, but if that's true, why don't Bibles put the part about Joshua in chapter 2 in the past perfect, the verbal tense used for talking about things that had happened previously?

At the end of the book, amidst the horrible story about the concubine and murdering of all the Benjaminites, Phinehas the priest shows up. Phinehas is famous for stabbing the man who was flaunting the fact that he was with a Moabite woman, while all of Israel was weeping on account of God's punishment for their being led astray by the women (and gods) of Moab. The story is in Numbers 25, indicating that Phinehas was alive while the Israelites were wandering in the dessert. Even if Phinehas was a teenager in the dessert, he should have been long dead after all of the judges had ruled their respective 20 or so years. There are two explanations for this – either the book is not in chronological order or this is a different Phinehas, who is not the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, but is instead a descendant of these men.

As both the first chapter and the last chapter seem to be out of chronological order, this makes an interesting pattern. It suggests that even might be intentionality to things being out of order. When I was trying to solve the mystery of Phinehas, I checked out the Anchor commentary, and it suggested that the first and last chapters present a theological argument for the book. I found that a helpful way of looking at the text, especially because it's effective: I find the last story in the book to be shocking and disturbing. The reader is pushed to the conclusion that this is a people in desperate need of being saved – and the system of the judges obviously didn't really work.  

15 June 2015

Reading Joshua together

Matthijs and I have been reading through Joshua. It's not exactly the obvious choice of a Bible book to read through as a couple, but reading it together helps me catch up on my reading so that I might get through the Bible this year.

It's been a surprising adventure. As Matthijs reads, one of us sometimes stops and says, “what was that?” One obvious place was the story of Rahab (Joshua 2). After spending time with prostitutes in Amsterdam, the story has a few more layers. Like the fact that most prostitutes are very good at telling people what they want to hear. “Why yes, those Israelite men have already left.” “And certainly everyone in Jericho is afraid of all the Israelites.” I find it interesting that the spies report to Joshua that everyone is afraid of them when the only place the Bible reports them visiting is the prostitute Rahab's house. And it's on the basis of her word that they report this information. The only other proof the Bible gives is that they were being sought out by the king's men, but this might be standard procedure when foreigners sneak in to spy.

The long lists of people conquered, kings killed, and land divided is another aspect of Joshua I'd managed to forget. About a week of listening to names of people I don't know and places I've almost never heard of is more than enough (unfortunately, it's definitely more than a week's worth of reading).

At the same time, in the midst of the lists are some surprising moments. End of chapter 10 says that Joshua defeated the whole land and all their kings, he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel had commanded. Yet, at the end of chapter 15 it says “but the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalm, the people of Judah could not drive out; so the Jebusites dwell with the people of Judah at Jerusalem to this day.” End of chapter 16 notes how they did not drive out the Canaanites that dwelt in Gezer. How can there be no one remaining in the land while there are Jebusites and Canaanites still in the land? Can both statements be true?

To me this is one of the joys of reading the Bible together: to have those “wait a minute, what did it say?” moments. And then to wonder what's going on. I think most of us hear the book of Joshua saying that all the peoples in the land were conquered - because that's part of the theological message of the book: God is with them and is faithful to his promise of the land. So how then could there be people still remaining in the land? Yet, I think we miss something when we ignore what the text itself is saying, especially when it doesn't fit our own preconceived ideas of how it should be.

Alongside the strong theological message in Joshua of God's faithfulness, there's another undercurrent in the book of theological significance: the people are not entirely faithful (Achan's sins in chapter 7 being evidence of that). Saying that there were people Israel could not drive out seems to me to be another way of pointing to the people's lack of faithfulness. In the book of Judges, the theological undercurrent is exactly the opposite. The dominant theological message presented in Judges is that the people did what was right in their own eyes. Yet, alongside the unfaithfulness of the people, the book of Judges also has a theological undercurrent: God is faithful in delivering them.  

14 June 2015

A visit to St. Gregory's Abbey

This past week I visited St. Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. The following gives an idea of what that looked like this time:

Over the two days I was there, I spent at least three hours in the woods. I saw 3 deer, 1 raccoon, 1 large rabbit and 4 wild turkeys, plus numerous birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and 3 cats :)

I slept at least 6 hours every night and took an extra nap each day. I would have slept longer each night, except that first service starts at 4 a.m. The first service has about 15 Psalms, so I really like that one. And I go back to bed (and sleep) after it until the next service at 6. I spend almost 3 hours in church each day when I'm at the monastery. It's not that I have to. It's more that being in church is my way of remembering and re-learning how things can and should be. The many prayers that have been offered in this place, and the beautiful woods, help me further to be still and turn towards God to listen and ponder.

Besides walking and church, I tend to read and write when I'm there. This time it was Rachel Held Evans' Searching for Sunday, which I appreciated (it's actually the next book the monks will be reading at meal time). I also looked through Ruth Tucker's Walking Away from Faith, read 2 articles for my dissertation, and read the books of Judges, Ruth, and most of Acts. I wrote some emails, blog posts, and even a bit on the dissertation.

It was a wonderful break. A bit more energy spent on my dissertation might have been nice, but it felt good to catch up on other things, as it gives space in my head to work on the dissertation. The only thing lacking was Matthijs's company, but that's now resolved as he's back from the class he was taking. I feel refreshed and hopefully ready for the next adventure(s) and challenge(s).

27 May 2015

Her name was Tarra

I came home the other night to find a woman sitting beside my driveway. She seemed confused, and so I asked if I could help, even if I didn't really know how. I used to know - but I had left behind all of the contacts and resources I once knew in Amsterdam. But my time in Oudezijds 100 (and with the vrouwenpastoraat [women's pastorate]) had left me with the conviction that one helps, even if only through reaching out.

I offered her a ride somewhere. As I went in to tell Matthijs, she came in with me. She sat on our couch and told us a bit of her story. She seemed confused and conflicted; furthermore, she had a black eye and had been drinking. We listened. I prayed. When I went out with her for a smoke, Matthijs called Catholic services to see if they knew how we could better help her.

Someone was sent. We gave her food while we waited for help from outside. The help turned out to be the police, perhaps the only option on a holiday weekend, but probably not the best fit for someone in her shape. When he came he asked immediately for her name, and it was only then that I discovered it was Tarra. I felt bad, having forgotten that learning someone's name is as much an act of hospitality as inviting them in.

The police tried to convince her to go to a nearby women's shelter, which I also thought good. And she was ready to go, but she got spooked. Perhaps this is not surprising, as she seemed more willing to trust me, whom she'd just met, than the police. She admitted her life was messed up because of her own decisions, but wasn't sure how to make other decisions, or even if it was safe to. And as for other solutions? The police refused to take her back to Kalamazoo Street, which she requested, as he believed this to be an unsafe place for her. Even Tarra, who is not from the area, understood the problem: Kalamazoo street is where prostitution happens. How could he bring her back to that area, even if she claimed it was where a friend had an apartment? What real friends give black eyes, anyways?

And so the police left, without her. And Matthijs and I were left confused about how best to help Tarra. I didn't feel comfortable inviting her into our house to stay the night, although perhaps we will find a way (through community?) to be able to do that in the future. So instead I walked down the street with her for awhile, let her talk to her mom on my phone, wished her well and continued to pray. Pray that perhaps the next encounter with someone will go better and she will seek and find more lasting help.

25 May 2015

My own awkwardness with Mother's day

This year marked my first year living in America on Mother's Day. One of my hopes for the day was to attend a church service that was not too overtly focused on Mother's day. I didn't want my feeling of awkwardness related to Mother's day to overshadow my interactions with others. More so, I didn't want to detract from the deep thankfulness I believe all people, especially all Christians, should have towards the love and dedication of mothers (and fathers).

But Mother's day makes me feel awkward, and saying I'd prefer not to talk about mothers and mothering is probably not helpful to bring up in a conversation. But I can't imagine that mentioning that my mother has passed away or that Matthijs and I are inexplicably childless is more helpful. I think the biggest challenge is that each of these things brings feelings that are difficult to understand without the experience. At the same time, each person experiences these challenges in her (or his) own way, and these responses vary significantly, so it's hard for others to know how to respond well. 

To me, the feelings found in the loss of a parent is one I feel like I share with others, as this article from the New Yorker indicates: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-unmothered. Despite knowing that I am not the only one feeling this way, I still don't know how to talk about it. I don't know how to describe the vague feeling that something is missing in my life, like conversations and support from my mother, nor do I know how to talk about the sadness/ mild depression that I went through in the year after she died. At the same time, her absence has become a part of life, and I have adapted to this new reality, finding good in how my relationship with my whole family has grown through this and delighting in how my father has become more involved in his grandchildren's lives.

Our experience with infertility, on the other hand, feels much more complicated. I've always wanted to be open and honest about our experience, but it's not an easy topic to bring up. Most of us know people for whom being unable to conceive is a source of deep sadness. In light of that, how do I bring up my somewhat ambiguous feelings about having children? I do not really know how to relate to that deep sadness about not being a parent nor respond to others who want to empathize with me about that sadness. Instead, my journey has been trying to answer how, if I am content with not having children, not conceiving can cause such disappointment? No one had warned me about the difficulty of learning to anticipate only to be consistently disappointed, nor the sense of failure that my body is incapable of doing something that so many others can (and often without even trying). And the solution? No one knows, except to say that using hormones and IVF increase our chances.

I am thankful that Mother's day passed quietly here. I didn't want it to be about me, especially as I clearly have some extra baggage when it comes to mothering. At the same time, I hope that my own experience has helped increase my compassion for others for whom the topic of mothers is complicated. My prayers go out to those who have been hurt by how we talk about mothering, especially those who have experienced the pain of having a miscarriage and the misconceptions people have with that: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/05/08/404913568/people-have-misconceptions-about-miscarriage-and-that-hurts

17 May 2015

Deacon Ordination Ceremony number two

Today I attended the ordination ceremony for deacons within the (Catholic) diocese of Lansing. It was a delight to be present to see the men that we had gotten to know this past year take the next step on their journey. At the same time, it felt a little bittersweet. Despite Matthijs having joined with these men in their training for much of this past year, he is not yet allowed to become a deacon.

This is now the second time this has happened. When we decided to move to Lansing, Matthijs was no longer committed to Amsterdam. Because one is ordained to a specific place, the bishop could no longer ordain him in and to the church in the Netherlands, despite having been approved and trained there. Last year around this time he witnessed his fellow classmates become ordained.

The hope was that he could "transfer" into a program here. Yet, once again, the question has not been whether Matthijs would be able to serve God and the church well in the capacity of deacon. Instead, place is still an issue: our visas are only temporary. Perhaps there is still a way to make it happen, especially as we do intend to stay here for the next five to ten years, but nothing is certain.

One of the things I am growing to love about the office of deacon in the Catholic church is how much the wife of the aspiring deacon plays a role. A man cannot become a deacon unless his wife is fully in agreement, recognizing that the work of deacon can take a man away from his family and that it is a burden (and joy) that both husband and wife will share. It is not uncommon for a wife to request that the process of becoming a deacon be delayed until the children have left the house. I, too, am playing a role in Matthijs not yet becoming a deacon, although in a different way: our choice to move here to allow me to do campus ministry has caused Matthijs to be without place.

I am thankful for how patient and gracious Matthijs has been about the waiting, especially as I know it remains difficult for him to know how best to serve God and the church here in Lansing. At the same time, the wait has allowed me to witness his dedication to serving God, his enthusiasm and curiosity about so many different possibilities, and his desire to find a good fit, which has led to much deliberation and contemplation.

We are not sure about what is next. I am learning to be okay with that. It helps that (like a good Protestant?) I consider the words spoken to the deacons apply to both Matthijs and I: "Receive the word of God, of which you are a herald. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach." No matter what one's ordination status is, these are powerful and encouraging words to live by. 

01 May 2015

Vacation and distancing myself from work

I'm not entirely sure what I should do about work while I'm on vacation. Because I like my normal life and my work and I feel that things are fairly balanced and I'm doing well, I don't feel like desperately need to "get away from it all." But generally balanced and fairly well is hardly the ideal (neither is being frequently annoyed with others), so some healthy distancing from work is definitely in order. The question, though, is what the healthy balance is.

During vacation, I learned that having internet on my phone at all times was great for exploring the area and not having to stress about getting lost. It was not great for all of the times that there was a little icon on my phone saying that I had mail. Disallowing my gmail to update itself automatically would have been wise, as would a better "out of office" message. I don't mind looking at my email on vacation (it makes returning a lot less stressful), but I don't want email to get in the way of my being able to create a healthy distance and rest.

At times I felt guilty for thinking about work and taking the struggles that I had there with me on vacation. It wasn't until I was sitting in a church (the fourth or fifth one by then - churches are an essential part of my concept of vacation) that I realized that I had been mistaken about taking my troubles along with me. The challenges I have at work are part of my life, and I do not have to squash that part of me. Vacation should less be about ignoring these challenges and more about finding a way to put them in perspective. Spending time with God - a natural response to visiting churches and walking too much and delighting in the wonder of the world and the goodness of vacationing with Matthijs - allows the stresses and challenges and worries to become less overwhelming. Giving space on vacation for work helps me to remember to trust God more with the difficulties and allows me to remember and dwell on all the wonderful things that I love about my job.

29 April 2015

Cleaning someone else's dishes: another way of doing community

Last week, Matthijs and I stayed at friends of his in San Francisco. It was good, both the city and the  hospitality of Chris and Eva.

As I was cleaning up the dishes one night, I realized why I was enjoying this vacation in a different way than normal. Vacation is about getting to do things that we don't do as much as we'd like to, like exploring a new city, walking through beautiful nature, and spending lots of time talking to each other (about everything) over good food. Resting and getting away from normal life is thus an important part of how I understand vacation. At the same time, doing the dishes at their house reminded me of something I had also been missing: the easy intimacy and comfortable sense of community found in sharing (living) space. 

Doing the dishes felt symbolic both of sharing space and life together (Matthijs and I had helped wrap enchilladas for the dinner they were hosting the next day) and of having enough freedom to create and order the space in a way that fit me. The freedom was further extended to knowing that I could go to my room any time to read (or even read with them around) or skip out on the conversation to play/read with their daughter, Alma. It felt close without feeling forced or overwhelming.

Creating community - or perhaps better said, creating space where community can form - is part of my job as a campus minister. It seems strange thus to talk about it as something I miss, especially I do experience Campus Edge as having a strong community (even for me) and have started making friends. Yet, I still miss the natural intimacy that develops from living with others in intentional community. As I had met Chris and Eva only at our wedding, the sense of community was even more special, while also reinforcing my belief that gracious hospitality and sharing normal life together is more than enough to create good community.

Once again experiencing the joy and wonder of the community has reminded me how much I want that to be part of my life again, and soon. 

17 April 2015

Time for a vacation?

Last night as I was lying on bed, overly tired from the day, I told Matthijs that "I hate everybody." He proceeded to inform me that he didn't qualify as everybody, while simultaneously warning the cat about my mood. Have I mentioned recently that Matthijs is good for me?

And, of course, I don't hate everyone. The words are simply a way of expressing both my being overwhelmed and frustrated by the challenge of human beings in relation with each other. It's also my way of saying that I need some time alone, far enough away from others to recharge. 

It feels like my ability to recharge from caring for people and interacting with people's messiness has decreased in the last while. The "I'm finding it crazy hard to motivate myself to do what I should" mood has also increased in length and frequency. A vacation is definitely a good idea to replenish my energy and desires.

I come from a culture where we learned to "suck it up" and "live with it". To some degree, saying that I need a vacation feels selfish and even a bit frivolous. Lots of people don't or can't have vacation. After all, if you farm or have your own business, vacation is often exceptionally complicated, if it's even feasible. Having a fragile economic or political situation also makes vacation pretty difficult. So when so many people don't get vacation, why/how can I need one? The short answer is that I don't need one. 

At the same time, God gives gracious gifts, and for me that includes paid vacation. It's a blessing, a way to refresh my soul so that I might come back more able and open to doing ministry. The refreshing my soul is good, as my attitude makes a huge difference in ministry (for a comparison, see this article of how a dean's way of being affects everyone). I also am learning that it matters a lot that my spiritual life is in order (i.e., I definitely shouldn't hate everybody). I am not the only one to believe that, as this article on the pastor's personal holiness points out. 

It is not so much that how I am doing spiritually encourages and challenges those I lead, it is more that I can not pastor people well if I am not constantly turning myself towards God so that I can listen well, be humble, pray for and love those God has given me. When my turning towards God focuses too much on my own frustrations and tiredness, it's hard to turn to God with and on behalf of others.

04 April 2015

Holy Saturday: the not quite in-between day

Ever since reading, Alan E. Lewis's Between Cross and Resurrection: a Theology of Holy Saturday, I have deeply appreciated the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. These words by Tish Harrison Warren capture some of the wisdom I found in that book:
"This day in Holy Week provides liturgical space for us, as a community, to recognize that because of Christ’s victory over emptiness and death on Sunday, we can sit patiently in ache, in ordinariness, in unresolve, in fallow times when God seems silent."
The rest of her article can be found at http://thewell.intervarsity.org/blog/holy-ordinary-saturday

Holy Saturday is for me a day to pause by the darkness of the resurrection that has not happened. On this day after the crucifixion, the initial shock would have worn off enough for the disciples to recognize that they have awoken to a world where everything they believed has shifted. It is a fitting day to remember and empathize with those whose faith is shifting and/or for whom the hope and joy of Easter feels absent.

To help you do that, Kathy Escobar does a wonderful job of writing about helping those whose faith is shifting: http://kathyescobar.com/2015/03/09/friends-of-faith-shifters-things-that-help-things-that-hurt/
Rachel Held Evans wrote a good article about the difficulty of Easter joy for those who doubt: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/holy-week-for-doubters.

The Reproaches of Good Friday

The end of the Good Friday service in the OudeKerk in Amsterdam would include the song: "Het Beklag van God" (God's complaint). I always found it powerful, although startling and a bit disturbing: the song asks how it is that we, God's people, would reject Him. As the songbook attributes the text to a rather well-known liberal Dutch songwriter (Huub Oosterhuis), I assumed that the song was uniquely Dutch: moving, provoking, and perhaps questionably orthodox. As much as the words reflected Scripture, it seemed to put words into God's mouth, which makes me uncomfortable.

I discovered today, though, that the Reproaches of God are actually an ancient text. Furthermore, the words are really from Scripture (Micah 6:3, Jeremiah 2:21, Isaiah 5:2 and 40 and more: see the Catholic Encyclopedia). Although the juxtaposition of these Old Testament texts to the context of Jesus' death is a bit unorthodox (and some have even argued that the words used in this way come across as anti-Semitic), I have found that juxtapositions often surprise us, causing us to see the text in a new way. I thus think it is worth hearing, reading, contemplating and sharing.

The following is the first part of the text (credit to be given to Jeffrey Pinyan):
"O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you?  Answer me!
For I brought you out of the land of Egypt,
but you brought out* a cross for your Savior.
Holy is God!  Holy and mighty!  Holy and immortal!
Have mercy upon us!
For I led you through the desert for forty years,
and fed you with manna,
and brought you into a land of plenty,
but you prepared* a cross for your Savior.
Holy is God!  Holy and mighty!  Holy and immortal!
Have mercy upon us!
What more should I have done for you, that I did not do?
Indeed, I planted you, my precious chosen vine,
but you have become terribly bitter to me.
Indeed, you gave me vinegar to drink in my thirst,
and have pierced your Savior’s side with a lance."
Follow this link for more of the text.

You can also listen to a Latin version of the text (the Improperia) on youtube.

26 March 2015

Interpreting the story of the woman at the well (John 4)

I remember reading in college an interpretation of the story about the Samaritan woman (John 4) where the she was considered a prophetess. I didn't entirely find the argument convincing, but I do remember finding something enticing about it. I liked how seeing the woman in a positive light changed how I thought about what was happening in the text.

One of the defining moments in the story is when Jesus asks the woman to get her husband. Her avoidance in answering the question and Jesus' response ("you have had five husbands and the man you are living with now is not your husband") makes it obvious to the reader that her marital state is not good. We immediately brand her with the Old Testament variation of a Scarlet A. We read into the text that anyone having had five husbands (and now living common-law!) is a Sinner.

But could her "not good" marital status translate into something else and, if so, how does that change how we understand the story? James McGrath does a wonderful job of pointing out the biblical texts we should use to help us interpretthis text, so I will include them here, instead of trying to say them in my own words: 
"We are told that the woman has previously had five husbands, and that the man whom she now has is not her husband. Unless Samaritan law was very different from Jewish law, and their culture likewise radically different, there is no possibility that this meant that the woman had divorced five men. Women could not initiate divorce in Judaism, and in this patriarchal cultural context, a woman who divorced a couple of husbands would not be likely to be taken as the wife of yet another. Are we to imagine either that several husbands have divorced the woman, or more plausibly, that the woman has been widowed multiple times?
Several stories do feature women who were widowed more than once and would have been known in the original hearers’ context. Gen 38 narrates the practice of levirate marriage—the responsibility of a man to marry his (childless) brother’s widow (Deut 25:5-10). An even closer parallel to John 4 is in the Book of Tobit (Tobit 3:8), where a woman named Sara loses seven husbands to a demon on each wedding night. The story suggests that a serial widow may struggle to remarry—a man might fear that some curse or demon was associated with her, and that his own life would be at risk if they wed. Such beliefs would of course leave the woman in a more vulnerable position, though she might still become a concubine.
It must be pointed out as well that neither divorce, remarriage, nor concubinage were considered immoral in this time period, and so the widespread slandering of the Samaritan woman from the story, so popular in sermons, is inappropriate."
     James F. McGrath, "Woman at the Well", n.p. [cited 25 Mar 2015]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/woman-at-the-well.aspx
Assuming the woman is not sexually immoral does not change the not good-ness of her situation. Being divorced or becoming a widow five times, and now having no man willing to marry her, would be a cause of shame. It is possible that being childless was part of that shame, as not bearing children could explain the high rate of divorce and/or remarriage.

In the midst of the woman's shame and complicated situation, Jesus spoke to her, answered her questions, saw her with all the complications, and invited her to be the one to share the gospel with others. Many people today suffer shame for the things that others have done to them or the situations they have been forced into (e.g., sexual abuse), yet we as a church find it much easier to talk about how guilt, as our tendency to brand the Samaritan woman as a sinner shows. But I believe we lose something there. The text proclaims loudly that the gospel given by Christ changes everything for those who know shame. Even more, those who know shame might be uniquely gifted in passing on the gospel to others.

27 February 2015

Sometimes the Bible is clear

A lot of times the Bible doesn't seem all that clear. What, after all, is the right Christian position on birth control, the role of women, care for the environment, the ideal way to pray, whether prophecy still happens today, and so on? Asking what the Bible says and why it matters was the focus of one of the Bible studies that we just had in Campus Edge. It was a joy to lead, but we didn't come up with any obvious answers, which might feel disappointing to those searching for clear answers.

At the same time that the Bible seems unclear in numerous issues, it's clear in other ways. One of those ways is why things are written. The following are a number of examples:
  • That the people might know the the LORD is God - that is the reason  the plagues are recorded the way they are.
    • Exodus 10.1-2 "Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.”"
  • So that you might believe Jesus is God and so have life, that is why the gospels have been written.  
    • John 20.30-31 "Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." 
  • Ezekiel frequently repeats "that you might know that the LORD is God" as the reason why something happens. 
  • The end of Ezekiel explains why the description of the temple is given. It is not, as some seem to want to argue, so that we can build a temple according to the description given (even if the building description was comprehensible, which it's not, what good is a temple that has no roof?). Instead, a more surprising reason is given: becoming ashamed of one's sins. 
    • Ezekiel 43:10-11 says "“Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins. Let them consider its perfection, and if they are ashamed of all they have done, make known to them the design of the temple—its arrangement, its exits and entrances—its whole design and all its regulations and laws. Write these down before them so that they may be faithful to its design and follow all its regulations."
These are simply some of the verses I can think of (off the top of my head) that proclaim a clear biblical message: that you might know God. This fits well with the greatest commandment that Christ proclaims: love God above all and your neighbour as yourself. The rest of the stuff in the Bible, irrelevant of how clear it may or may not appear to be, is definitely good and helpful, but I believe it is ultimately less important than the coming to know (and love) God.

21 February 2015


I spent half of last week visiting a monastery (St Gregory's in Three Rivers). It was good, as you might be able to sense from the pictures below. 

Part of the good was that I spent time working on my dissertation. Another good was that I had time to prep for our study on Job by reading the book and part of a commentary. Still more good was time spent in Church, immersed in the Psalms. I also had the unexpected chance to fast, as they forgot to tell us ahead of time that there was no breakfast or lunch served on Ash Wednesday. That too was good. And the last good? Matthijs was with me, and he delighted being there with me (and spending time in the library :))

The following pictures are from our visit late in the fall. It was also beautiful and refreshing then. After all the changes that had happened in the previous months, it felt like I desperately needed the beauty and prayers that are part of this place.

I am thankful that this last visit felt less intense, less of a realignment. Instead it felt like more of a gentle reminder of how things can and should be.

14 February 2015

Not asking the same questions about the Bible

I recently picked up Craig Blomberg's Can we Still Believe the Bible? I have to admit to being very surprised by the questions he addresses. The introduction mentions that there are six issues that evangelicals are bringing up in response to the Bible.

The titles of the chapters reflect these 6 issues:
      "1. Aren't the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?
       2. Wasn't the Selection of Books for the Canon Just Political?
       3. Can We Trust Any of Our Translations of the Bible?
       4. Don't These Issues Rule Out Biblical Inerrancy?
       5. Aren't Several Narrative Genres of the Bible Unhistorical?
       6. Don't All the Miracles Make the Bible Mythical?"
Although I was intrigued by what he had to say about different genres and can imagine this being a difficult area for the average reader of the Bible, I have to admit that I don't understand the difficulties with the other issues. I can understand that people might not understand exactly how our translation of the Bible has come to us, especially when supposed experts are forever talking about the original text actually meaning something different than what we might expect from our translation. Yet, these questions are fairly easy to address with basic knowledge about the history of the Bible (and the original languages), so how have they become issues within the church today?

I can imagine that people might have difficulties with God as presented in the Bible, as God does not come across as particularly gracious, fair or consistent (and Christians are even worse!). I personally find this difficult to understand and don't really know how to address this. At the same time, years of studying the biblical text have only increased my love for it, my appreciation for (but also skepticism of) biblical scholarship (done by Christians and non-Christians), and my delight in following a God who is beyond my comprehension and continues to surprise me.

The conclusion of Blomberg's book helps address my questions about these issues. In the conclusion, he criticizes how some evangelicals have been part of making things issues that do not need to be issues. For example, the concept of inerrancy has caused more difficulties than good. This does not mean that inerrancy is an inherently a wrong concept. Christians, after all, do need to believe Bible and God is trustworthy. At the same time, he points out (page 221) that we do not need to believe whole Bible is without error to live a faithful Christian life.

This book also reminds me of how the church needs good biblical scholars to help out those who are struggling and, even more importantly, to keep the focus on the important questions of what the Bible says, who God is, and how we are to respond.

04 February 2015

Powerful but impractical

One of my favourite reasons for reading the Bible (again and again) is the numerous times it makes me pause to ask whether I really did just read what I thought I read.

For example, Exodus 8:6-7 reads "So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land. But the magicians did the same things by their secret arts; they also made frogs come up on the land of Egypt."

The text clearly points out that the Egyptian magicians showed their power by doing the same miracle as Aaron. Aaron (and by implication, his God) was thus no stronger than the magicians. 
At the same time, my immediate reaction was: Really?!? What were those magicians thinking? Why would they want to use magic to raise more frogs? Did Egypt somehow not yet have enough frogs crawling over everything? 

The telling of the story is pointing to the might of God and his working to let his people go, while at the same time narrating the Egyptians' (and Pharaoh's) defiant resistance to God's power and his claim on the Israelites. The magicians re-doing Aaron's miracles is part of that re-telling. Their actions here create suspense, raising the question of whether God really is the most powerful and what the final response of Pharaoh will be to Moses and Aaron.

On the practical side, however, the magicians come across as being rather incompetent. There was obviously no need to exasperate and increase the frog problem in the land. True power would have come in stopping the frogs from coming up from the earth or, better yet, causing something else to come up from the ground (or from the sky) that would eat the frogs and thus eliminate the problem.

30 January 2015

Churching in my neighbourhood

My ideal church is one I can walk to. Even as much as I find theology (and denomination) important and I deeply value the concern that the church has for those within the church and their neighbourhood, I want to find these two important aspects of being church within my local neighbourhood. As unrealistic as this might sound to those of us living in North America, I was blessed in being able to walk to church for the last 15 years of my life (five of those were in Grand Rapids).

Things have changed, and I now work beside the church I attend. Living beside work is not great for a healthy work/life balance, I prefer living in the neighbourhood of the students who participate in the ministry, and I really appreciate the bike ride to work during the snow-free time of year. It seemed obvious that our current neighbourhood was a good fit, and I'm growing to love it more all the time (after all, do you have a community center only 20 minutes walk away that offers cheap ballroom dance lessons?). At the same time, I miss churching in my own neighbourhood.

Fortunately, we live a block away from a Catholic church and several blocks away from an RCA church, a sister church to my denomination: the Christian Reformed Church. Churching in my neighbourhood is thus very do-able, and I can even do both churches on a Sunday morning :)

The other week, Matthijs and I thus churched in our neighbourhood. I was impressed by the sermon given by the priest. He dared bring up pornography in the sermon, pointing out the damage and pain it caused in so many relationships and how it was not limited to one gender or age group. He even acknowledged that this was an area that he himself had struggled with. After the service in the Catholic Church, we walked to the Reformed Church where we joined in a concert of prayer. We were warmed by the welcome we received, and it was a delight to see how so many people were encouraged to participate in the prayers and the whole service. I thus thoroughly delighted in churching in our own neighbourhood; and yet, I wouldn't want to do it always: it would mean missing out on catching up with those I love in my own church.