04 December 2017

God as labouring woman

In our study at Campus Edge, we've been going through Winner's book, Wearing God. I've enjoyed it tremendously, although I have to admit that some of the images of God that we've explored just didn't work. Laughter was one that didn't really relate, and the image of God as laboring woman or nursing mother really didn't work for the group. However, I found these images, as shaped by my own experience, helped me grow in appreciation of God's love and nurture for us.

I especially found insightful what Winner wrote in regards to seeing God as a nursing mother. Speaking of the power found in nursing, Winner notes: “your body has the power to keep someone else alive. . . and as Gandolfo explains, ‘Like the power of a nursing mother, the power of divinity is the power to comfort. Babies who nurse often seek out their mothers’ breast not only when they are hungry, but when they are tired, frightened, or distressed.’”Winner, Wearing God, 167. Furthermore, “to picture God as a nursing mother is to picture both our dependence on God and God’s radical self-limitation for our sake. After all, in nursing, the mother gives herself over to her child and allows her life to be determined by the child’s schedule and the child’s demands.” Winner, Wearing God, 167. Knowing the cost involved - that my life and schedule got turned upside down to meet our little's needs - this image of God as nursing mother makes me appreciate God's care and comfort for us in a new way.

In light of my own appreciation of those who provide day care for my child and my recognition of the challenges in looking after children, it is fascinating to me that Winner picks up on Moses dialogue with God in Numbers 11: Moses asks why he should be taking care of these children, as he did not birth them? Winner provides the following commentary on the passage:
“Numbers 11 could be read as a parable about short-staffed day-care centers, about a society that does not allot adequate resources to caring for children to supporting mothers or hired child-minders. It is striking to me that, in Numbers 11, God reaffirms the decision that God made when God called Moses to lead Israel out of bondage in the first place – the decision to place the children of Israel in someone else’s care . . Perhaps this is another way that God puts God’s own power at risk. This is not the groaning vulnerability of labor or the chosen self-limitation of nursing. It is a different kind of risk: putting work that is important to you – in this case, the work of redemption – in human hands.” Winner, Wearing God, 176. 

30 November 2017

The God who hides

I really appreciated this image of God playing hide-and-seek that Winner describes in her book, Wearing God:
“We might of think of God as one who plays hide-and-seek. When playing the game, the children who are hiding almost always give themselves away by laughing or giggling. Our job, as friends and disciples and reverencers and lovers of the Lord, says Land, is to listen for God’s laughter. . . kids who play hide-and-seek usually hide in the same places over and over again, and so the parent or friend tasked with looking might reasonably know, even without the sound of laughter, where she is likely to find the one hiding. This is true of God, too. . . God hides in bread and wine, in silence, in gardens, in cities, in prisons, in huger and privation and poverty, in song.” Winner, Wearing God, 236-7.
I believe God is actively working in the world - but sometimes I act like I don't. I act like God is lost, instead of seeing it more like hide-and-seek, where I will see where God is and has been, if only I look and listen properly.

29 November 2017

A child brings a whole new set of social interactions

Bringing the child to a home day care for the last few months has made me realize that I've entered into a whole new world of social interactions, and I once again have limited idea of what to do. 
  • Do I talk to the other parents? If so, how much and what do we talk about? Perhaps how cute their child is, what milestones they might have hit, what their weekend plans are? 
  • How much do I talk to my day care providers? I'd like to know how much the little slept and ate each day, whether she had a bowel movement or her diaper leaked, and whether she was generally content. Or if there's anything I could do to make life better for her or the day care providers. But should I ask about their weekend plans? About what it's like to run a day care? About their children? About living in Lansing?

I already feel a bit socially awkward in many situations, so I'm not particularly excited to recognize that this new situation has given me more social interactions to negotiate. This is on top of figuring out how to respond to people's interest in my child (how do I thank them appropriately for their compliments, should I offer to let others hold her or let them tell me first, when is my distraction with the little okay and when is it insulting to someone else, etc.). 

On the other hand, all these new social interactions help me remember what it's like to feel socially awkward again, which is a helpful thing to remember when working with people negotiating the weird social interactions of the academic world. It also provides me with a learning opportunity about how to treat people with dignity and learn to appreciate who they are as individual persons (and not simply as the parent of that child or the person who looks after my child). And lastly, it reminds me that I can probably never thank my day care providers enough - or even know how to adequately express to them my thankfulness to God about how they keep my child safe and show her how much she is cared for.

31 October 2017

I want you to believe this way, but....

I think one of the harder parts of being a pastor (and probably being a parent) is acknowledging that, while I very much want someone to believe a certain way because I think it will bring them joy, peace, and meaning, I can't make people believe things.

Instead, I try to live a life that invites people to hear what I believe, to see the good of what and why I believe, and to extend grace and hospitality to people even when they don't believe what I want them to and/or think they should.

This, I think, is especially true when it comes to sexuality or any aspect of one's self that is deeply ingrained in your understanding of who you are (i.e., identity). Christianity Today recently published a good article that highlights that, arguing that "you can't just tell us what to believe. Instead, Gregory Coles argues that
"Persuasion comes through gentleness and patience. We sometimes act as though committed gay believers should have their approach to reconciling faith and sexuality entirely worked out, right this moment. But those who have trod the same path know how painfully difficult this is to manage. Coles is humble enough to admit that he does not see the answers with complete clarity. . .

The church might give the same space to work out these issues as many churches do with unmarried couples who visit. These churches patiently work with them as they return week after week, as they slowly come to understand the Bible’s teaching on extramarital sex. Can we not have a similar attitude toward same-sex-oriented people, especially when their situations are so much more complex?"

24 October 2017

Jesus as the bread of life, the non-gourmet kind

Lauren Winner, in her book Wearing God points out how we have the tendency when we imagine Jesus as the bread of life to think of that as 'foodies' might. But, if God really does have a preference for the poor and hungry and exhausted among us, Jesus should probably not be likened to gourmet bread. Jesus, after all, is not a luxury, but sustenance.

Winner says:
“I realize I am at some risk of turning the God who provides food into a ‘foodie’ for whom cooking the right food at the right time of year has become both a pleasure and a mark of status. Surely our image of God as provider of food might also include my mother, home from a long day at work and utterly without the energy to cook, microwaving a bag of popcorn for herself and opening a can of Chef Boyardee for me.” Winner, Wearing God, 108. 
Winner’s response to objections to the second image is almost as insightful:
“God became incarnate, and God knew exhaustion and finitude, and God has a preference for those with no margins in their lives, and out of solidarity, God probably sometimes hands around a can of SpaghettiOs to the saints.” Winner, Wearing God, 109.
While I don't know if I could appreciate the taste of SpaghettiOs anymore, the image Winner presents definitely gives me something to chew on.

20 October 2017

How long it takes me to write a sermon

This past weekend I preached at a wedding. It was a good experience, except that it took me a long time to write the sermon. Thankfully, writing a sermon is no longer the excruciating experience it used to be, but it still feels like it takes a lot more of my time and energy than it should.

To be honest, though, it takes a long time because of all the time I spend avoiding writing the sermon. The actual writing of the sermon, when I finally do it, probably takes up less time than all of the avoiding. I'm not sure how I feel about that, other than the obvious sense that I really should do something to change that . . .

19 October 2017

A sermon on love: the bliss and the work

This past weekend, I had the honour of preaching at a wedding. The texts for the wedding were 1 Corinthians 13 and Song of Songs 2:8-10, 14, 16a; 8:6-7a. Since I'd put the time into writing the sermon, I thought I'd post much of it here in the hopes that it would bring encouragement to others.

On a joyous occasion like a wedding, it seems fairly obvious what love is. The different sides of love – the joy and the effort involved - are found in the two texts we read today. We hear the delight of love in Song of Songs – this is the sort of love that causes one to be willing to do anything, from airport good-byes to leaving family and friends and starting a new life somewhere else. 1 Corinthians 13, on the other hand, provides wisdom for showing how the love that starts a marriage can continue to grow in the years to come and overflow to those around them.

The love that is described in Song of Songs is an overwhelming love. Even the language used is a bit overwhelming: “Show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.” Those are words of longing, words that might fit better in an email or letter between two lovers today and not words that we connect with church.

Yet, Song of Songs captures the passionate love of a man and a woman for each other, a passionate love that is shown best in marriage. And in marriage, we get to claim – My beloved is mine and I am his. There is something wonderful in those words – a commitment to each other that is part of the very goodness that is marriage. And this love is, as Song of Songs chapter 8 says, “as strong as death, It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away..”

Yet, love can be all consuming, and the text of 1 Corinthians 13 gives wisdom in showing how the fire can keep burning while also warming all those around it. 1 Corinthians 13 describes what love looks like when we put it into practice:
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This is the kind of love we all want to receive. We know that we need this kind of love – because no matter how hard we try, we'll still be late, we'll forget things, and we'll hurt each other. When this happens, we need the kind of love that keeps no record of wrongs. Yet, practicing that love is hard.

It sometimes seems easier to speak in tongues, as the first part of 1 Corinthians 13 talks about. Even as hard as it is to speak Dutch or English, it is something all of us can eventually learn – and despite the frustration involved, there is laughter in the times when we do sound like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. There is also the adventure of learning another culture and the surprises we come across. We discover that a simple word like fine – even if sounds exactly the same in both languages – doesn't mean the same thing. When a Dutch person says fine, they actually mean good. When an American says fine, they actually mean not so good – or don't talk to me because I'm busy!

Love is figuring out these assumptions about words and actions – assumptions we didn't even know we had! That is hard work, as it requires much patience and a desire not simply to say fine, I'm too busy and irritated to figure out what it means to be kind to you. Instead it requires a continuous striving to love each other honestly and with our whole person.

Thankfully, we do not need to do this alone. God has promised his help and has given us friends and family to help all of us practice love. And just as we receive love and encouragement from those around us, our love (including the love between husband and wife) is meant to overflow to those around us. To people we love and to all who cross our paths.

It will be hard, but practicing this love is definitely worth it! The second half of the text talks about the frustration of seeing an image only dimly in a mirror. Today that's like the difference between getting to see each other via Skype and getting to finally see each other in person. And that joy found in finally being together – the joy of finally getting to say – My beloved is mine and I am hers – that is worth all the hard work.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

07 September 2017

Baby brain

So there are numerous studies about how one's brain (and hormones and emotions) are affected by becoming a mother. I'm not sure how my experience fits with all of that. I do, however, know that I can't handle crying very well - everything in me feels programmed to make me go to our child as quickly as possible and resolve whatever is wrong.

And as for being more scatterbrained than usual? YES. I justify this by telling people that I've added a whole new schedule to my head. But I think Matthijs put it better: we now have a whole new set of things to remember, forget, and/or misplace.

04 September 2017

Remembering my mother

This past weekend Matthijs and I visited Michigan's Upper Peninsula with our German guest. As we were a bit late in booking anything, the best hotel option turned out to be in Sault Ste. Marie (on the Canadian side). The trip was worth it, as Michigan's Pictured Rocks are truly gorgeous, but what made staying in Sault Ste. Marie special was discovering that my aunt and uncle were incidentally on vacation in Sault Ste. Marie - and staying in a hotel across the street from us!

A selfie with the Pictured Rocks and the little
Getting to see my aunt, even briefly, and getting to introduce our little one to my mother's family made my mother feel a little less absent. In my aunt's joy in getting to hold our child, I could get a glimpse of the joy my mother would have had in getting to know and love our little one. 

For my mother, being married and having children had brought her the greatest joy in life - and I knew she wanted me also to experience that joy. While I was content being childless (and also as a single person), becoming a mom has helped me to understand my mother better. The joy I have experienced in getting to know and love our little one has definitely made me appreciate more her (and my father's) desire/prayer that we have children. 

29 August 2017

Pastoral (chaplaincy) care as a sacred presence in order to re-find meaning

Kerry Egan, in her book on living provides the following description for her work as a chaplain:
"Every one of us will go through things that destroy our inner compass and pull meaning out from under us. Everyone who does not die young will go through some sort of spiritual crisis, where we have lost our sense of what is right and wrong, possible and impossible, real and not real. Never underestimate how frightening, angering, confusing, devastating it is to be in that place. Making meaning of what is meaningless is hard work. Soul-searching is painful. This process of making or finding meaning at the end of life is what the chaplain facilitates. The chaplain doesn't do the work. The patient does. The chaplain isn't wrestling with the events of a life that doesn't match up with everything you were taught was true, but she won't turn away in fear, either. She won't try to give you pat answers to get you to stop talking about pain, or shut you down with platitudes that make her feel better but do nothing to resolve the confusion and yearning you feel. A chaplain is not the one laboring to make meaning, but she's been with other people who have. She knows what tends to be helpful and what doesn't. She might ask questions you would never have considered, or that help you remember other times you survived something hard and other ways you made sense of what seemed senseless. She can reframe the story, and can offer a different interpretation to consider, accept, or reject. She can remind you of the larger story of your life, or the wisdom of your faith tradition. She can hold open a space of prayer or meditation or reflection when you don't have the energy or strength to keep the walls from collapsing. She will not leave you. And maybe most important: She knows the work can be done. She knows you can do it and not crumble into dust. 
. . . . 
But the fact remains that before a chaplain gets to that place with a patient - the place where the patient can share into a deep hole of meaninglessness, or even leap right into it and wrestle down in the lonely existential muck until a ladder of sorts begins to appear - and somehow, somehow, in ways I still can't fully explain, a ladder always does appear - before all that, the chaplain has to create a sacred space, and to do that, she has to offer her loving presence first."               - Kerry Egan, On living, pages 18-20

Some of my work with Campus Edge is like this - a creating of sacred space to re-find meaning. Yet, too often I feel like I am trying to check off a list of things that need to be done instead of being present with others, expectant that God is working in that moment. The challenge is that many of the moments in my work are not momentous, and it is harder to remember that in the ordinary moments God is not any less present and working.

A desire I have for the coming time is that I would grow in expectancy and being myself fully present and listening, and it is something I can pray about and ponder as I go for walks with the little this coming season. On top of that, I hope that as I learn to be more present when I am with my daughter - because her delight in the world is contagious - I will learn to be more present with others, along with increasing my awareness of how God is already working in other people's lives.

20 August 2017

A Pastoral Prayer for our daughter

Last Sunday I had the joy and honour of baptizing our daughter.
Photo courtesy of Ginny from River Terrace Church

At the end I got to pray the following prayer for her:

O Lord, uphold Lydia by your Holy Spirit.
Give her the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,
the spirit of joy in your presence,
both now and forever. Amen.

It is a prayer that I pray not only as a pastor but also as a parent.

18 August 2017

But isn't that dangerous?

When talking with some friends about actions to do in response to the events in Charlottesville this past weekend, I mentioned that I'd like to participate in more rallies - at least partially because it was something I could do where I could take Lydia with me.

After mentioning that I'd take Lydia to a protest/rally, the response I received was "but isn't that dangerous?" And my thoughts were no, not really. This is Lansing, after all, and I've been to a few demonstrations/rallies here. But I expect people would say the same thing about Charlottesville, and multiple people were seriously harmed there, so participating in a (counter)protest does involve some risk.And yet.
Every time I want to go somewhere I put myself (and Lydia) into our car. Statistically speaking, this is by far the most dangerous activity that we can participate in. But I still do it - almost daily - because I want and need to get around. And so I calculate that the danger is worth the risk.
How much more should the potential danger of participating in an event that speaks against hatred of others be worth the risk? Especially when Lydia's charming smile also speaks volumes about joy and acceptance.

17 August 2017

But i do still want my old life back

I wrote this about a month ago, so my sentiments have changed somewhat. The challenge now is to figure out how to spend good time with her while also spending enough quality time working. 

As much as I love our little girl and am deeply thankful for the joy she brings into our lives, I do still kind of want my old life back. I have found it hard that so much of my life - time, plans, activities - has revolved around her. I am thankful to say that it has become a little less hard with time. I've gotten a bit more used to our daughter, I'm getting a decent amount of sleep, and she is taking less time to breastfeed: so my time is spent doing more than breastfeeding and helping her or me sleep. I am also learning how wonderful and good it is - for Matthijs, our daughter, and me - when I sometimes hand over care of her to Matthijs. I am thus slowly regaining some freedom and the sense that I have a bit more control over my life, which has been very helpful in making me feel less overwhelmed with being a mom.

At the same time, it's been good to hear others who also express the challenges of motherhood. A wonderful book I've been reading, Spirituality in the Mother Zone by Trudelle Thomas, expresses the complicated reality of becoming a mom, including how hard it is to be honest about it:
"While it's acceptable to talk about the intense love of new motherhood, mothers are often reluctant to mention the 'darker' emotions that are often just as powerful. They may complain, even joke, about outward difficulties like hours of labor, sore episiotomy stitches, and sleepless nights, but few will speak candidly of the confusion, rage, and grief that may come with the territory of new motherhood and last far longer.
No religious initiation is any more intense than the deprivations new mothers face: interrupted sleep; seeing your once orderly home strewn with receiving blankets and dirty dishes; the vigilance of trying to understand a baby's unfamiliar cries; often not being able to eat, dress, shower, or even use the bathroom at will [for me it was not being able to go to sleep when I wanted or needed]; suddenly having to learn all the practical skills of breastfeeding, dressing, bathing, and attending to the medical needs of a helpless human being.
Even amidst the joys, it is a painful time of surrendering to a new way of life, of being stripped of the familiar." (page 33)
As much as I still sometimes chafe about how this small human has control of my life, the stripping of my life that she talks about has also at times been good for me, as it put things in perspective. For example, the times when I am not responsible for her make me more motivated to do the things I can't do when I'm with her - in this way her presence and absence is teaching me more about giving up myself, including the self that wants to procrastinate and wait until I'm in the right mood to do something.

As for wanting my old life back, I'm getting used to life with Lydia so that sentiment is decreasing, although I do still miss the freedom to plan and do things when I want to - and I miss being able to bike. Thankfully the bike problem is being resolved, as I've finally brought it in to the bike shop to get fixed.

22 July 2017

But i didn't do anything

One of the most striking moments of my pregnancy was hearing at the twenty week ultrasound that our daughter was healthy and well formed. While these are the words that one does hope and even expect to hear, it felt a bit surreal. I hadn't really done anything, so how could all be well? Sure, I had taken my vitamins, eaten fairly healthy and not had alcohol, but that was it. So many people long for children and greet pregnancy with deep joy and thankfulness for the gift from God growing in the womb. I, on the other hand, had mixed feelings about how this small person growing inside me would change our lives. My prayers surrounding the baby were not about her and her health but about us: prayers that I might not offend others by my lack of enthusiasm about babies, prayers that we as parents would have the strength and wisdom to welcome this small child and a prayer that I might greet her eventual arrival with joy (thankfully, God answered most of these prayers).

Those words that our daughter was healthy and well helped me understand grace a little bit better. Because even though I know in my head that I have done nothing to make me deserve salvation, there haven't been that many moments in my life where I've felt that awe of 'how can this be true when I don't deserve it?' Salvation and grace have been something I've grown up with and accepted with deep thankfulness but have rarely been startled by. Somehow this moment of being taken back by our daughter's well-being - how, without us doing anything, this small person was healthy and growing well inside me - allowed me to be surprised by how much God had done form me (and was continuing to work in my life) despite how little I have done and can do.

10 July 2017

This small person God gave us

I'm not sure how I feel about being a Mom. I do know, though, that I love the small person God has given us to take care of. And for that I'm thankful.

We've been gifted with a cheerful little girl, and it's a great joy to watch her smile at me and others and begin to interact with the world around her.

03 June 2017

Learning to be an academic

An article on Inside Higher Education, "The Confessions - and Confusions - of a First-Generation Scholar," helped me reflect on my own academic journey.

I would categorize the family I grew up in to be very much in the "not academic" category. We were down-to-earth blue collar folks, a family who worked hard simply to make ends meet. We had few books in the house, and the fact that I wanted to read all the time was seen as strange. Most of those I went to school with were also children of blue-collar types, and I learned to hide my high grades from classmates because it would only ruin my already disastrous social standing.

Going to college and then Seminary introduced me to families + situations that were vastly different, and there was a phase when I was jealous of other people's families because I seemed not to have fit so well into mine. I am thankful that phase has long since passed, and even though I sometimes wish I could carry on a coherent conversation with Matthijs about classical music, I am deeply grateful for my family, especially the love of laughter and life skills that they taught me (and continue to teach me, such as buying a house and taking care of a baby).

I have sometimes beaten myself up that I haven't already finished my PhD: it shouldn't be taking so long since I'm smart enough and lots of other people finish earlier. I don't think it ever occurred to me to see a correlation between my non-academic family and my current academic progress (or why, at forty, I am not currently a tenured professor somewhere). Yet, this article argues that there is a correlation, which then also helps me extend a bit more grace to myself and my (lack of) accomplishments in this area.

One section that especially stood out to me is Herb Childress's description of his own academic progress:
"I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 1989, at the age of 31. Had I come from a college family, I’d have finished my Ph.D. by the time I was 31. Had I come from an academic family, I’d have had half a chance of being tenured at 31."
It is those words that gave me the sense that perhaps my failure to complete my PhD before now was not simply about incompetence on my part. Perhaps more played a role, including the possibility that I had brought with me to the academy the sense that I did not belong - a sense that would only have been compounded by being a female in a predominantly male field and studying at a foreign university. 

Childress's words regarding how first generation scholars often do not fit well either in their home community or their academic community also resonated with me:
Every first-generation scholar becomes the butt of jokes about not knowing how to do some task like replace a toilet gasket or stack firewood, how to make a good pie crust or a tortilla, because our labor doesn’t really look like labor.. . .
As with any immigrant community, naturalized scholars are never quite welcome in their new homeland, either. We study the habits, master the vocabulary, serve on yet another committee. .  . We take nothing for granted; we always think our cover will be blown, our ruse revealed, our passport revoked. My first-generation colleagues tell me that they can never allow themselves to be seen as “that farm girl,” the former truck driver or warehouseman, pretending to be scholars like little children wearing their parents’ shoes. We master the camouflage that keeps us hidden and safe. We smooth out our jarring regional accents, stop telling jokes, take up skiing rather than snowmobiling. We are double agents."
The words also make me realize that it is perhaps not so strange that I've found a fit within campus ministry. Not only do those words above describe the unease of first generation academics, they also can be applied to some of the unease that Christians feel when they go into the academic community - or when academics become part of local Christian churches. 

31 May 2017

Learning to work with men

Billy Graham is known for his rule not to ever be alone with a woman who is not his wife. Vice-president (US) Pence came up in the news awhile ago, as he had adapted a variation of it.

As much as I can admire the intent behind the rule (to limit falling into sexual sin), it's not a rule I condone or appreciate as a female who is both a pastor and struggling biblical scholar. Most of the people in my field and my line of work are male, especially the ones having more power and authority. If I'd had to hold to this rule - or had my many mentors along the way who'd held to it - I would never be where I am now, having been challenged and encouraged by so many men up to this point.

Tish Harrison Warren, in an article at the Well puts it better than I could:
"I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for meeting with me — some of you years ago, some of you last week — to disciple me, befriend me, love me, and honor me as a fellow follower of Christ and as a human being."
She goes on to describe the specific situations and persons who had encouraged and honoured her. My list would be similar, so I will simply say 'Amen' to what she has said, including her final words that point out the sexism that this rule perpetuates:
"Thank you for seeing me as someone worthy of love and investment, and not simply as a temptation to avoid. Mostly, I thank you for seeing me as a human being, God’s image bearer, who, like you, needs Jesus and pastors and friends and good conversation over coffee.Your impact on my life is clear to me each and every day. And I thank God for you."

29 May 2017

Why I bike

I'm going through old drafts, editing and posting them. I haven't been biking lately since my bike is malfunctioning (and having a baby is not so conducive to biking), but editing these words remind me of why I miss biking.

In Amsterdam I biked because it was the fastest, most efficient way to get most places. In Lansing, though, almost everything is faster and easier with a car. Yet, Matthijs and I both choose to bike here. We do it because it's cheaper - parking on Michigan State's campus is expensive, as is car insurance and upkeep for a second car. Biking also means that I don't have to deal with many of the annoyances of rush-hour traffic or finding parking on campus. And it's a great means for me to get exercise.

As much as those are all good reasons, what I like most about biking here is how it allows me to get to know my neighbours and people around me. Because I bike by often enough, I know the house down the street with numerous cats: one is almost always sitting on the porch (I've also bumped into a raccoon near there). I can tell you when the water level has risen so high that it crosses the River Trail near Kalamazoo Street. I've greeted numerous people on their porches or walking or biking (many people will smile or say hi). I've even bumped into some of Campus Edge's grad students along my route and enjoyed a short conversation to catch up on how things are. I expect yelling hello to a neighbour's husband as I biked by after dark while he was putting out his garbage was less appreciated, but that, too, creates memories and appreciation of my neighbourhood.

Hopefully I'll be back on my bike soon, but for the next little while, I will have to make do with learning to know and love the neighbourhood more through walking and other means (The Banner magazine has a good article about hospitable neighbourhoods that I can use as food for thought). And my enthusiasm for learning to know the neighbouurhood better has been increased by the wonderful discovery that people are even more apt to greet me when I'm pushing a baby buggy.

28 May 2017

A Sort of Sabbath

On good days, I joke about how the majority of my day is filled with either feeding the baby or trying to figure out how she (and I) can get enough sleep. In the few remaining hours of the day, I can read, eat, go for walks, spend time with Matthijs and others, do laundry, and even work on a random project.

Bad days are when all I can think about is figuring out how and when I can sleep. In the minutes and hours before I find sleep again, I am mostly overwhelmed and/or praying that the little one will quiet down. Thankfully, there have been few bad days - just a couple of hours every few days.

While the list of things at the end of the first paragraph resembles some kind of Sabbath, the second does not. Having a small person, irrelevant of how much I love her, determine every hour of the day what I can and cannot do (especially with regard to sleep) definitely does not feel like any kind of Sabbath. And yet.

Dorothy Bass, in her book Receiving the Day, talks about how keeping Sabbath teaches us to step back and remember that it is not by our own efforts that things happen. God does not need us to do things (cf Psalm 127:1). By taking a break from the ministry of Campus Edge, I am trusting that those that God has put in place in the ministry will do a good job and I am living out of the conviction that God does not need me for the ministry to flourish.

And I am learning that having baby makes time and accomplishments look different. By necessity, I feel like I've learned to accept graciously all those things that can't and don't get done. At the same time, I've delighted in the things that could get done - like reading BrenĂ© Brown's book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  Brown talks about wholeheartedness and worthiness and learning to accept yourself, irrelevant of what you've accomplished. The following are two quotes that begin to express this:
“Worthiness doesn't have prerequisites.”
"Here's what is truly at the heart of wholeheartedness: Worthy now, not if, not when, we're worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is.”
Maternity leave might be a strange time for these lessons to sink in further, but I expect that there will be no shortage of lessons that God is able to teach me through the entrance of this child in our lives.

24 April 2017

Adding an identity, instead of changing one

As I near the end of my pregnancy, my joy in getting to meet the small person has increased, but I still have mixed feelings about becoming a parent. Part of the mixed feelings come from my sense that I've never really seen myself as the mom type. I have been open to having children, but I've also been fairly content not having a children (a feeling I considered gift when I was still single at 30).

I have no desire to stop being who I am - a pastor, biblical scholar, wife, friend, Christian - in order to become a mom. Or even to replace one of those identities with the 'mom' category. As much as I expect that I will deeply love our child - because of God's grace and the calling God's given Matthijs and me, I also don't expect that I will all of a sudden start becoming excited about babies in general.  So one of the things I wondered about through the months of pregnancy was how I would add another identity - that of Mom - especially when church culture seems to see being a Mom as taking over one's entire identity (and becomes one's sole and/or primary calling). And especially when academia tends to see being a Mom as being incidental or inconvenient.

I'm thankful to have encouraging mentors along the way: these past months I've had lots of good conversations with women who have 1-2 children and work and love their job. Online there have also been encouraging examples, such as an interview with Katharine Hayhoe where she talks about the challenges related to children: "Having a family is hard. Having a dual-career family is even harder. And the reality is that the more kids we have, the harder it is. One is very portable, two are manageable, three becomes more challenging, and four... well, with four you have to consider that at least one person’s career has to be full-time parenthood for a while."

The part of the interview that I found most encouraging was reading about her disastrous trip when she went without her 2 month child to an important conference:
it was a miserable experience: sleep deprived, still coping with some horrendous health issues and surgeries that had followed the baby, just trying to find a place in the airport where I could pump, taking milk through security. It’s more accepted now, but back then they were like, "What is this? I don't know if you're allowed to take this through," and that was when I lost it. I have a vague memory of screaming something along the lines of, "I squeezed every single ounce from my body! And you are not going to take it!" in the TSA line. It was ridiculous. 
I don't find it at all hard to imagine myself doing the exact same thing. And when I can imagine myself relating to her at a low time in her experience with being parent plus everything else, I find it a lot easier to imagine that I, by God's grace and with Matthijs's gracious and wonderful help, will be able to know best how to take on the calling of parent while not forgetting or neglecting the other things God has called me to be and do.

11 April 2017

Thoughts from Bolz-Weber on Good Friday

As we approach Good Friday, I wanted to share the following quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber about Good Friday:

"Good Friday is not about us trying to 'get right with God.' It is about us entering the difference between God and humanity and just touching it for a moment. Touching the shimmering sadness of humanity's insistence that we can be our own gods, that we can be pure and all-powerful. . . . Good Friday is a stark and unapologetic display of remorse. Remorse for the way in which humanity kills ourselves and the creation and love and God him/herself."                           Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints, 140-1.

17 March 2017

A different way to follow God

Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote an article articulating how her unanticipated childlessness has allowed her to be used by God in ways that she hadn't expected. As she puts it, "The contributions God has allowed me to make to the church and the world are contributions specific to being a woman, and, further, a woman without children."

I found her words both encouraging and challenging to read.

As one who spent my twenties single and my thirties childless, it is an article that resonates with me.  The church has often seemed to be very enthusiastic about people getting married and having children, and not as enthusiastic about other possibilities. It is thus deeply encouraging to hear someone share the following words, proclaiming the good of a different way of following God.
"The church often doesn’t know what to do with those who—whether by circumstance, conscience, choice or simply through the brokenness of creation—fall outside the mold that shapes this ideal of family life. There is an unspoken assumption that this failure to fit the pattern is just that—a failure. To be sure, sometimes we break the mold by our choices, even our sins. But ours is a God of great imagination and infinite surprises. He sometimes calls us out of the standard mold and into a new one."
At the same time, I also found the article challenging. As Prior puts it, "While it’s certainly true that our passions and talents hint at our calling, God sometimes calls us to things we don’t want to do and don’t have a knack for." I am not so good at appreciating God asking me to take a different path than what I had expected, no matter how good it might be or how much it might honour God and bless others (and myself.)

15 March 2017

Galavanting in Michigan

To celebrate Michigan State's Spring Break and take a break from normal life, Matthijs and I spent some time galavanting through Michigan last week. We spent a day in Detroit, explored Portland and Ionia, and spent some time in downtown Grand Rapids.

Below are some highlights:
- We explored the Detroit Historical Museum. I appreciated especially the Gallery of Culture, as it gave a glimpse of some of the more complicated history of Detroit, including some of the riots and violence that gave Detroit its strongly negative reputation. The role of sports was also intriguing, as it brought people together while also appearing to be a way to avoid the racism, poverty, crime, and other troubles of the city.
- We bumped into The Whitney, a gorgeous 1890's mansion close to the museum. We came during happy hour, so lunch upstairs at the bar was not only enjoyable but also affordable.
- We explored the Detroit Public Library with its gorgeous architecture and artwork.
Ionia Courthouse
- And then we stopped at Ikea on the way home because there were a couple of household things we wanted to pick up, and we ended up also getting a desk for Matthijs - one where the height adjusts, so he can actually get his knees under it in a comfortable way.
- We discovered that Portland, MI, isn't all that exciting: however, it has great paths both for walking and biking.
- Ionia, MI has a bit better architecture, as evidenced by this lovely house for sale and the picture at the side of the courthouse.
- Ionia, however, has nothing on Grand Rapids, especially the Heritage Hill area where we spent the night (see Logan house at the side and a map of Heritage hill houses that we followed for as long as we could handle the cold).
Logan house (plus a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish house beside it)
- We saw the musical Ragtime. The production was very well done, and it led to a couple of fascinating conversations about how the musical (and the early 1900s) has a lot of connections with today: the place of immigrants, the role of women, one's place in society, racism, and even the role of sports as both a distraction and something that draws people together.

The break was good, as was the opportunity to explore and delight in new places.

13 March 2017

Bolz-Weber on the danger of becoming closer to God

Several weeks ago I picked up Nadia Bolz-Weber's Accidental Saints (2015). It was good - the kind of book that reminds you of the joys and challenges of trying to notice how God is working in the world around us and in and through each of us.
The following struck me as being profound:

"I [Nadia] was asked by an earnest young seminarian during a Q &A, 'Pastor Nadia, what do you do personally to get closer to God?'
Before I even realized I was saying it, I replied, 'What? Nothing. Sounds like a horrible idea to me, trying to get closer to God.' Half the time, I wish God would leave me alone. Getting closer to God might mean getting told to love someone I don’t even like, or to give away even more of my money. It might mean letting some idea or dream that is dear to me get ripped away."                              page 8.
I appreciate her honesty in naming the danger in becoming closer to God. Oftentimes as Christians we talk about how we ought to and can become closer to God but neglect to mention the cost of opening ourselves up to God.

Matthijs and I own both of her books, and we'd be happy to lend them out for others to read. 

20 February 2017

Paying attention to the details in a story

At Campus Edge we've just started looking at the Elijah and Elisha stories. These are wonderfully odd texts, so it makes looking at them more closely both useful and interesting. There's much to discover, as was made more obvious when I started reading Thomas L Brodie's The Crucial Bridge, which has pointed out a lot of the details and patterns in the text. I was so excited about what I'd been reading that I shared the insights with Matthijs, and I am looking forward to sharing them in the studies I lead.

It always fills me with delight when I can understand the Bible better because someone passes on what they've learned from paying attention to the text. Alan Jacobs's recent reflections on Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God is another example of someone whose paying attention has filled me with delight and has made me wonder further about what the Bible actually says. Jacobs suggests that, on the basis of what is actually written in the text, Solomon's building of the temple was more his idea than God's. It's a fascinating thought - not one that had occurred to me before, but one that does correspond to the disquiet I've had about Solomon and his holiness: how could someone so wise and dedicated to God spend so much more time building his own palaces than God's temple and be so led astray by all of his wives?

I encourage you to read all of Jacobs's thoughts about the building of the temple - both David's role in it and Solomon's role. He argues that it was Solomon's idea to build a temple, and that the temple was even a misunderstanding of what God wanted. Jacobs notes:
Solomon clearly believes that the Lord wants him to build the Temple, perhaps because that’s what David told him; but, again, God’s declaration in 2 Samuel 7 says nothing about a commandment to build, and here in 1 Kings 5 he has still not said to Solomon, or to anyone, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” The whole idea is Solomon’s.
God wasn't interested in a temple: he was interested in obedience. The prophets would reiterate this idea years later. According to Jacobs, 
Solomon seems to get this. When the Temple is completed and he utters his great prayer of dedication, he indeed emphasizes the necessity of obedience. But he also repeatedly suggests that now that the Temple is built it is time for the Lord to fulfill all his promises to David’s “house” — as though by building the Temple Solomon has asserted some kind of claim upon the God who made the whole cosmos and raised up Israel and put him, Solomon, on his throne.
This fascinates me because it echoes the claim that Israel seems to have: You, God must do something for us, at least partly because we have this temple and we sacrifice to you. (Or because we took your ark with us - cf. 1 Samuel)
Jacobs concludes with the following: 
I don't mean to bring too much of a hermeneutics of suspicion to this party, but this looks suspiciously like an inversion of the Mosaic law: rather than God giving the law to Israel, Solomon gives the law to God. And the leverage that he hopes to bring is the promise that the Lord will be honored by the nations as God through the magnificence of “this house that I have built.” Look at  what I have done for you! Aren't you grateful?“ The Temple is a magnificent technological achievement, and Solomon insists that its purpose is to glorify God, since "this house … is called by your name”; but it certainly seems that Solomon is hardly indifferent to his own power and glory.
I don't think it takes much effort to recognize how we often relate to God in the same way: Look at how good I have been - therefore you must bless me. Fascinating how a close reading in the text can be verified by other texts and can also help us recognize some of our own bad theology.

13 February 2017

A prayer

I was asked to do the congregational prayer in church yesterday, as well as to do the offering announcement (for Campus Edge). As part of Campus Edge's mission to encourage the development of community, this semester we've been studying love and sexuality, recognizing how hard it is for us to be a loving community to each other, especially in the area of sexuality where there has been a lot of hurt both from and within the Christian community. As part of Campus Edge's desire to do intellectual inquiry, we've been studying the book of Ecclesiastes and its sometimes too realistic view of how difficult and meaningless life can seem. These aspects of the ministry are included in the following prayer, as well as other prayer concerns related to university life.

Almighty God, we come before you with our thanks and our concerns. We thank-you for the work that you are doing in this church and in the ministry of Campus Edge. We know that you have been guiding this church as we remember our identity. We trust that you will continue to be with us and with the calling you have given us and the people you have given us to encourage. 

We pray for the world. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by what is happening in the news. We pray for those areas affected by war and famine, shootings and floods. We think especially of Yemen, Somalia, Israel-Palestine, and especially Syria. Bring comfort to all those who are suffering in these places. May those fleeing their homes find a safe place to continue their lives and may these countries become once again places where people can flourish. 
We pray also for all those who are foreigners in this place – we think especially of the international students at Michigan State. We pray especially for strength, comfort, and wisdom to those whose connections to home and their own futures feel more precarious because of the recent travel ban. 

We bring before you the church. We pray for the wider church and how our witness to You is tarnished by all the ways we fight with each other about what it means to follow Christ, especially when it comes to things we are passionate about, like politics. Help us to work together to take care of the weakest among us and to protect each other from danger. 
We pray specifically for the work of your church at MSU. We pray for those who attended the apologetics event with Ravi Zacharias – may it lead to further questions and people knowing you more. We pray for all the ministries, including Campus Edge, reaching out to those on MSU's campus: that we might provide places where people find fellowship and support as well as space to ask questions about faith and know You better. 

We bring before you the communities of which we are a part. We pray for our families and friends, for the community of this church, for those participating in Campus Edge, and for the wider community of Michigan State. We pray for the illnesses and suffering that we know about and for those things we don't know about – whether that be surgeries or cancer, financial troubles or relationship troubles. Whether the suffering be physical, emotional, or spiritual. 
We pray especially for those who are questioning You – that they might not feel alone but instead be comforted by knowing that many before them – from the author of Ecclesiastes to numerous saints – have wondered about the purpose of life and your presence and role in it. 
We pray also for those for whom sexuality has been a burden and a cause of shame and suffering – whether that be infertility, pornography, one's relationship status, one's attractions to others, or other things that are simply too difficult to name. May they – may we all - know your grace in this complicated area of our lives. Give us the courage and wisdom to know how to be honest and open with each other, to listen well, encourage each other and to be a strong community to each other. 

Knowing that you hear all of our requests, we pray these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

14 January 2017

Un-sentimentalizing Jesus

Mary Vandenberg at her blog, Life, God, and other Mysteries, captured what I was trying to get at it in my desire to un-sentimentalize Christmas:
"Its fairly easy to worship the newborn king. The infant Jesus seems helpless and tame, his omni-attributes veiled beneath the chubby baby cheeks.

But what about the Jesus who rebukes evil spirits, tells the woman at the well to sin no more, and accuses his followers of being an “unbelieving and perverse generation”?

And what about the Jesus who instead of proclaiming peace on earth as our Christmas cards and carols proclaim, tells the people: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

Or how about the Jesus who reminds us that the cost of following him is rejection by the world? (Luke 9:23-24; John 15:18-19)

What will I do with all of Jesus – not just the warm and fuzzy parts – this year?"
I encourage you to read the rest of the blog (both this entry and previous entries).

13 January 2017

Jeremiah 29:11 in context?

The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire site, has a wonderful article on Jeremiah 29:11. Jeremiah 29:11 says "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (NIV). Many people find it inspiring and encouraging. Unfortunately, as the article seems to suggest, many find the verse to be more inspiring without paying attention to its context (exile and living in a foreign land). 

And so, in a recent turn of events, The Babylon Bee "reports" that

"“Everything except that super-encouraging verse is likely not canonical, added by a scribe at a later date,” one expert told reporters. “Apparently someone invented an entire fabricated context around the verse to give it additional depth and meaning, rather than letting it stand as the beautiful, context-less words of positivity and affirmation that Jeremiah originally intended.” . . .
At publishing time, scholars had also announced that a similar forgery had occurred in the book of Philippians, with chapter 4:13 being the only passage likely penned by the Apostle Paul."
from "Confirmed: Earliest Manuscripts Of Jeremiah Just Had Chapter 29 Verse 11."

It's nice to notice that I'm not the only one who gets frustrated by how this text often gets completely removed from its context. While the text is definitely one of hope and comfort, the comfort is primarily in the confirmation, not that God would make his people rich and have lives of comfort, but instead that God would be with his people despite all of the difficulties of their situation and as they did the unexpected: seeking the prosperity of the city in which they had been exiled (Jer 29:7).