Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Thanks, I guess

I do not have much time this week to write for pleasure, but there is one thing worth taking a moment to discuss. In the midst of a stressful few days of studying and finishing big assignments, God has taught me a little something about thankfulness. My roommates and I are all jam-packed at the moment, which means the apartment is falling into disrepair. Looking at the overflowing pile of dishes in the sink, my thoughts somehow drifted from annoyance to a sort of thankfulness that we apparently had enough to eat and enough support to have too many dishes.
Walking to class yesterday, it dawned on me that I was thankful for class. Class now serves as a respite from homework.
In the midst of my homework it occurred to me that I am being given the chance to attain an better education than 99% of humans have ever enjoyed. Not only that, but my studies are all in subjects that I want to learn.
Let's not say that I am "too blessed to be stressed." I am indeed blessed, but still fallen enough to be stressed. It does cast a different tint on the world, though, to see things through eyes of thanksgiving.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Social Distortion

Do you have a MySpace or a Facebook? I do. One of each, to be honest. The fact of the matter is that you probably do as well, which means that you should read this article (which I was directed to by this blog). In it, Christine Rosen takes a fairly in depth look at the consequences that these sites have on the people who participate in them.
The article does not just speak of the dangers associated with the sites, but reading about the dangers gave me cause to pause. In my freshman year of college, especially, a large part of my life was dominated by Facebook. "Did that person I met in class friend me yet?" "Do I have any new wall posts?" "I need to look up that person I just met, to see what kind of books they like."
Fortunately, I am no longer there, but I do still check my Facebook daily and my MySpace (is "my MySpace" redundant?) whenever I get an e-mail telling me that I have a new message or comment. I could develop an argument for the benefits of these sites, but I am not sure I would believe it. For instance, I appreciate that they help me to keep in touch with others, but if my "keeping in touch" with those people is only through Facebook or MySpace is it really worth it? Were humans meant to have those kinds of relationships with one another?
As the article insightfully points out the sites, "encourage users to check in frequently, “poke” friends, and post comments on others’ pages. They favor interaction of greater quantity but less quality."
Greater quantity but less quality. Exactly. It is nice, when your birthday rolls around, to get 30 or so "Happy Birthdays," but they do not mean that much. Both Facebook and MySpace notify your friends when you have a birthday coming up. This results in more well-wishes but you cannot know whether or not any of your friends would have actually remembered had it not been for electronic updates.
I really just hope to raise these questions, not to necessarily answer them. I have no radical plans of cancelling my accounts on these sites. I really do value the benefits enough that I am not at a point where it seems advantageous to leave the networks. Still, I will have to work through these next few weeks whether or not I am distorting my view of human interaction by participating in these "communities." Perhaps you should, as well.
At the very least, we should refuse to neglect in any way pursuing communion with the Triune God and with our brothers and sisters. Let's focus more on our friends and less on our "Friends."

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Sacred and the Secular

I am currently taking a church history seminar focusing on the history of the Church in the United States. We are looking at the Puritans at the moment, and they are a thoroughly interesting people. They are generally nothing like the stereotypical image we receive through history classes and reading "The Scarlet Letter" or "The Crucible." I find myself admiring these people and being astonished at the impact that their practices and beliefs have had on the contemporary church in America. One of these influences stems from their view on the sacred and the secular. Unlike the Roman Catholic church on the European continent which tended to highlight somethings such as the sacraments and the altar as sacred, the Puritans held a view in which all things were sacred. They expected to meet God in their milk-barns just as they met him in their church buildings. They saw the opportunity for household chores to be acts of worship. God created all things, and so all things were sacred.
Reading this brief bit of Puritan history sparked my interest because I have grown into my faith in a way that has seen all things as sacred, undoubtedly an influence being exerted on me by some of America's earliest colonists. By and large I truly appreciate this view because it places so many things in the proper context. It assures me that when I especially feel God's presence while camping I am truly being pointed to the Creator by sacred creation. It reminds me that in the midst of my mundane tasks and responsibilities, I can choose to do them in such a way that they will be transformed into the worship of almighty God. It helps me to look at the Church and see the priesthood of all believers. It provides the framework within which every moment can be a holy moment, consecrated by the God of the universe.
To say that this view is wholly positive, however, seems to miss some of its propensities toward error. For instance, I am tempted to look at Easter Sunday and ask why it is so important to celebrate the Lord's resurrection that day. After all, that day is no more holy than any other day and I should be celebrating the resurrection of Christ every day. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic and gives me more credit than I am due. Perhaps some people could live up to this ideal, but I find it extremely difficult to truly celebrate the resurrection every day. There are some days, sadly, where the thought of that history-changing event never enters my mind. I am not capable of living as if every day is Easter. For this reason, I will try to return to a full-blown celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. I am not giving up on celebrating my God's victory over death every day, but I do not want to be robbed of the one day in particular in which I should give my thoughts and energy to that event.
Similarly, my view of the Lord's Supper is not that of the good Catholic*. Although I also do not hold the bread and wine to be strictly symbolic and commemorative, my innate tendency is generally to view them as only representational. In that sense I might truly say that I hold the bread and wine of communion to be no more sacred than any other food. Unfortunately, in my commitment to the sacredness of all food I have given up the special sacredness of the elements of the Lord's Supper. In this way I easily convert it into a simple ritual and remove its transformative qualities.
This last example stems from the Christian culture that I am immersed in. In my circles it is no longer allowed to refer to the musical part of the church service as "worship." If you do so, it will quickly be pointed out that "everything is worship" and that we are denying our constant high calling to continuous worship by referring to that one time a week as worship. There is undoubtedly truth to this and I appreciate the sentiments represented by such gentle chastisements, but I think that they fail to live up to their spirit. Surely everything I do should be an act of worship, but this is simply not true of my life. Even at my best, when I am doing my homework as an act of worship, it is worship of a different quality. No doubt it is still an important and valuable form of worship, but my studies are done for various reasons. In singing at church, I really approach one of the few times in the week in which I am solely dedicating myself to the worship and contemplation of God. If I do the dishes for God, great, but whether or not I do them for God it is necessary that they be done. If my worship in church is not done for God then nothing of any value has been produced. I see no problem with referring to this act as "worship" as it is likely the most dedicated worship I offer to my Lord all week.
I do not reject the Puritan ideal of all things being sacred. I do not know how I could dispute that point. It does seem that a danger lies in not recognizing some things as more sacred, though, or perhaps the danger lies solely in the actual results often produced by such a view. Generally, when we point out that all things are sacred, we do not do so in a positive manner. We do not point out on Tuesday, "Today is a sacred day, let us dedicate ourselves to the Lord." Instead on Sunday we say, "Today is no more sacred than any other day; do not superstitiously treat it differently."
In Disney's "The Incredibles" Helen Parr tells her son Dash that everyone is special, to which he replies, "Which is another way of saying no one is." In the same way, it seems that in recognizing all things as sacred, we risk producing a worldview in which nothing is.

*For those not familiar with the theological positions on communion, Catholics believe in what is known as "transubstantiation." This position holds that when the bread and wine (known as "the host" or "the elements") are consecrated in Mass they actually become the real body and blood of Christ, although they still appear to be bread and wine to the senses. Protestant views tend to be "consubstantiation," "spiritual presence," and "symbolic." Consubstantiation holds that the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but are infused with the presence of God just as a piece of metal in a fire remains a piece of metal but is infused with the heat and the light of the fire. Spiritual presence is similar and holds that in some way God is active in the act of taking communion. The symbolic view holds that the bread and wine are strictly memory aids that remind us of what Christ did for us on the cross.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

September 13

Today is a great day in the calendar of the Church as well as in my personal calendar. Most personally, today we celebrate my sister's birthday, just as we celebrated my sister-in-law's birthday. They are both outstanding, and are hands-down two of my favorite women in the entire world. They are both well-worth celebrating, and you would be wise to join in.
If you do not think that you will be able to join that celebration, however, then join me in celebrating the feast day of one of my four favorite saints: St. John Chrysostom. St. John was one of those few characters in the history of the church who brought no scandal on himself or on the church. He undoubtedly continued to sin throughout his life as we all do, but he was an excellent example of a servant of God. Being an amazingly gifted speaker, he earned the nickname Chrysostom which means "golden-mouthed." He had studied for law but decided to instead use his gift for the building up of the church. He was made Patriarch of Constantinople against his will, gained fame throughout Christendom for his gift and yet remained humbly devoted to the glory of God. He was twice banished from Constantinople, the first time on trumped-up and untrue charges of treason. After much protest by the people who loved him, he was restored to his post. He would later be exiled permanently for a sermon in which he commented on the excesses of a statue of the Empress, which had been greatly distorted and inflated by the time it reached her ears. While exiled, St. John kept up correspondence through letters with his church, continuing to love and care for it. He would finally be martyred by being forcibly marched through the mountains until he died of exhaustion. He is today remembered as one of the four great Doctors of the Church.
St. John Chrysostom is well worth looking to as a model for Christian discipleship and I encourage you to celebrate his feast day today. Let us give thanks to God for providing the Church with such a gifted and humble servant. You should also check out this site, which provides a more comprehensive story of his life and access to some of his outstanding sermons.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What am I "Ghana" do?

I posted a while back in my pre-emptive blog that I would soon be posting on a "God possibly telling me something about Ghana." You could consider this the fulfillment of that promise. The story is best told long, so you are forewarned.

If you have ever checked out my brother's blog, you are probably aware that he has really felt a calling on his life in the area of medical missions. The short version of his story is that he is currently working as a paramedic, would like to start doing short-term medical missions, and I believe keeps the thought of full-time medical missions in the back of his head for the future. Africa is especially on his heart and particularly the region of Ghana and Togo in Western Africa. He has been talking about this with me since the beginning and gave me at least one book by missionaries in Ghana, which I devoured in about a day. It was all really fascinating; I was and still am terribly excited for what God is doing and plans to do in the life of my brother and his family.

Now for a bit of background on myself. In my freshman year of high school, I recognized a call to vocational ministry on my life, at the same time as 4 of my best friends. As time went by, I began to discern that my two primary spiritual gifts are teaching and preaching and that my heart beats for the church. With this in mind, and many other things as well, I began dreaming about being involved in pastoral ministry here in the United States. My hope was to plant a church, pastor that church for life, plant other churches out of that church's growth, and one day when I had acquired enough wisdom to raise up, train and disciple future pastors in that church. I say this as if this just was my dream, which is not entirely true. It really was, but in some ways it still is.

Before we continue with the story, there is one more factor that should be included. Around the time of my call to ministry, I offered myself fully to God. My prayer specifically stated that no matter where He called me, I would go. I offered to go overseas if that was what He had for me. At the time, I felt that He was pleased with that offer, but felt no prompting toward overseas work. This prayer would be repeated several times in the years since then and never would I feel as if I was in fact called to leave the United States.

Fast-forward now to May of this year. After reading the book on Ghana loaned to me by my brother, I started day-dreaming about one day serving in Africa, and particularly the area of Ghana and Togo. I did not expect anything to ever come of that dream, but couldn't stop thinking about it.

Two or three other factors come into play here. The first is that I have been reading Philip Jenkin's "The Next Christendom," which projects where the Church will be statistically in about 50 years if things continue as they currently are (a gutsy proposition no doubt, considering the Holy Spirit is intricately involved in the life of the Church). The projection of this book, however, states that 50 years from now, there will no longer be a global center of the church in North America. There will instead be three centers of the Church in Africa, South America and South-East Asia, with Africa serving as the primary center. There will still be a strong and thriving church in North America, but Africa in particular will be the most influential sector of the global Church, producing literature, theology and missionaries.

Although there are still unreached groups of people within Africa, the continent is presently in a different situation with regard to the Gospel than it once was. Africa (especially sub-Saharan Africa) is full of passionate, believing Christians. Two things are in shorter supply on the continent, though: finances and theological education. Some churches (by no means the majority however) are repeating old heresies, simply because their leaders have not had the opportunity for theological education.

As I was thinking about this and day-dreaming about serving in Africa, it dawned on me that my gifts and passions could coincide perfectly with the need in that continent. Thinking about one of my professors who regularly travels to Sudan for the summer to teach seminary classes, it occurred to me that I could serve as a full-time seminary professor in Africa. I could have the chance to teach, train and equip the upcoming leaders of the African Church. I could spend time with them, investing in their lives, and discipling them. My favorite topic within theology, Church History or Historical Theology, would be incredibly useful for educating the up-and-coming pastors about the precedents set by the Church, the examples of those who have gone before us, and the development of orthodox theology. I could be used to help shape the future leaders of the global Church for God's purposes. I really have none of the qualifications for such a task, but if God has called me He will qualify me. He used a stuttering Moses to lead His people to freedom; He used the runt of the litter, David, to serve as the best king Israel ever saw; He used the child Jeremiah to speak His mind to an adulterous nation; He used fishermen and tax-collecting traitors to establish His kingdom on the earth. As my pastor says, "God does not call the equipped but equips the called."

Still, at that point, it was still just something my thoughts continually turned to. I did not really expect anything to come of it. That began to change in August.

My church at home is non-denominational, but belongs to a community of churches (called Grace Covenant) across the country who have come together for fellowship, accountability, mutual support, and the support of new church plants and missions. Grace Covenant holds a few meetings a year, one of which takes place at my home church in Oakdale. I always look forward to the conference and was excited for this year's, especially as I somehow expected to hear something about this African dream.

The first night of the conference the founder of Grace Covenant, a man named Dallas, began the service by introducing another man to all of us. There were several faces from out of town, pastors from other Grace Covenant churches whom I recognized, but thankfully he was introducing the one man I did not know. Dallas explained that this man, Frank, had no actual connection to Grace Covenant whatsoever. He was in the United States for an extended trip, visiting a few churches across the country, and somehow stumbled upon the Grace Covenant website. Frank had gotten in touch with Dallas for some reason he did not really know and was invited to come to the conference if he wanted to. Frank, in Portland, Oregon at the time delayed his trip to Florida by a few days and headed down to Oakdale for the conference.

Dallas explained that Frank is actually Pastor Frank (really though, Bishop Frank). Frank hails from Kumasi, the second largest city of Ghana. He oversees more than twenty churches, two schools for more than 600 children and a vocational training school for teenage girls.

All of this was fascinating, I thought, but the next thing Dallas said would rock me. "Frank has a heart to start a training school pastors in Ghana, as well."

I actually had the nerve to think to myself, "Maybe this is why he is here."

I waited impatiently for the next two hours for the service to end so that I could get a chance to talk with Pastor Frank. When I finally introduced myself to him, I sat down and explained what had been on my heart, to which his first reply was, "Maybe this is why I am here."

He went on to tell me that this is currently the most pressing desire for him, that he hopes to start this training school and through it plant churches all over Ghana, but also throughout the continent of Africa. He explained that he hopes people might come internationally to teach there, as well. I couldn't believe it.

I told him about my brother's heart for Ghana as well and his desire to begin doing short-term medical missions. My brother was the one who got me thinking about Ghana. Frank told me that he had just met people at a church in New York who were planning on bringing out a medical mission sometime in the next year. He invited my brother and I to come out sometime in the upcoming year; my brother could work alongside the other medical missionaries and I could spend the time with Frank, seeing what he does and learning about his vision. From what I know so far, he sounds like exactly the kind of man I would like to learn from.

This brings me close to the present. I do not know if God is calling me to full-time service teaching and training pastors in Ghana, but I hope He is. If you know me, you likely know that I have at other times thought that I might be led to Alaska, Texas and Utah. Thus, I am now a little (but just a little) gun-shy about claiming to be called to a specific place. Things might change and if God leads me in a completely different direction I will gladly follow. Still, this is what is happening, and I think that God may finally be cashing in on my offer to go anywhere for Him. And I really hope that He is.


Do you know any people that just seem to make you feel a bit more alive? I am not talking about family members or even close friends; they are the people who keep you alive. They are of the utmost importance in life, but I am not talking about them because their very familiarity rules them out from being in this special class of people. Friends and family members probably would have been or once were these people for you, but they cannot be any longer because simply becoming accustomed to them is enough to dull you to the full effect of their presence. Trust me, the fault is not theirs but your own. We take things for granted, and we pay the price for it.
No, the people I am talking about are most likely people whom you know and see every six months or once a year. Perhaps you have only spent time with them once. But if you have any of these people, you know it.
These are the people that make you feel comfortable in your own skin. When you leave them, you thank God for convening your paths. You walk away with a bit more hope for the world, a bit more faith in the fact that the Holy Spirit really is at work. You are glad that they are going to be raising children. You hope that you can be this sort of person too, so that others can benefit from your simple presence.
I have quite a few of these people, and undoubtedly more waiting in the future. I have worked with them at camp, I have sat in their classes, I have visited them in their homes, I have met them in my church. Sometimes I will even recognize those who are most familiar to me as carrying this spark. Once or twice my eyes have been opened to see it in a stranger.
I love these people. I want to be one of these people.

"Sharks Moving to New Jersey" or Newsletters Sent Before Consideration

Please forgive me, but this blog will have nothing to do with theology or the faith. I just received this e-mail (on the right) from the San Jose Sharks fan newsletter. Read what you can of it first, then continue reading my writing.
Really, read the e-mail first.
Ok, I assume that you have read it, otherwise you are really spoiling this for yourself. You will no doubt have noticed that the SHARKS are MOVING TO NEW JERSEY! When I read that, my heart skipped a beat, my stomach turned over, my palms grew sweaty. MY Sharks are leaving San Jose for New Jersey? This cannot be! I quickly read the rest of the message and came to discover that the Sharks are not in fact leaving the West for the East Coast, but are simply going to begin wearing their new jersey with the updated logo. Exciting, but not frightening. I cannot help but think that the poor phrasing of this e-mail scared many a fan.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Good Books = Good Times

Classes begin tomorrow and I picked up my books for the semester. I am really excited about them, so I thought I would share what I will be reading for the next four months. Feel free to read along!

"Philosophical Fragments and Johannes Climacus" by Soren Kierkegaard
"On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent" by Gustavo Gutierrez
"The Humanity of God" by Karl Barth
"The Churching of America" by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark
"After Christendom" by Stanley Hauerwas
"The Gray Wolf" by George MacDonald
"Jesus Christ for Today's World" by Jurgen Moltmann
"The Civil War as a Theological Crisis" by Mark Noll
"A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada" by Mark Noll
"Studies in the Sermon on the Mount" by Oswald Chambers
"Windows into Old Testament History" edited by V. Philips Long, David W. Baker and Gordon J. Wentham.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Moved In and Coming Home

Well, I am all moved in back at school. The moving-in process is responsible in the delay since my last post, but really, the last post was long enough to make up for a couple of weeks.
A mildly interesting thought on moving in:
When I return to my hometown and house over Christmas and for the summer, I have a definite sense of coming home. As I come down the Grapevine heading north and see the large expanses of land without buildings cluttering the horizon, I know that I am headed home. As I continue north and pass through miles and miles of agriculture, recognizing the crops from the smell and the sight, seeing tractors dotting the fields, I feel as if I am almost there. When I finally pull into my driveway, open the front door, smell the smell of my own house (which I can only smell after being gone for a good period), hear my dog's jingling collar as he jumps up to my chest, and hug my parents, I know that I am home and it is good.
Oddly enough, in a different way I now feel as if I am coming home when I return to Azusa. How is it possible for two places to both feel like home? How is it possible to feel the pain of leaving one home only to experience the joy of returning to my other home a few hours later?
I have these experiences about four times a year: moving into my Azusa quarters in the Fall, coming home to Oakdale for Christmas, returning to Azusa after the Christmas break, and returning to Oakdale for the summer. Four times a year my thoughts are especially given to Heaven. As I make these homecomings, I reflect on the fact that when the time comes for this life to end, that it will be no mere euphemism to say that I "have been called home." Although the New Heavens and the New Earth in the total presence of God, His angels, and His people will in some ways be an alien thing, I believe that it will also be the fullest experience of coming home. I will feel as if I have finally made it back to a place that I have never been before. I will reach the very place that I was created for.
The writer of Hebrews lays out this principle in regards to God's faithful disciples,

"All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on the earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them."
-Hebrews 11:13-16.

How great is that promise made by the Lord Himself,

"In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am."