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Insights From Artists

Life, Spirituality

I have reflected recently on how much insight artists seem to have on life. As they convey their own feelings, experiences and ideas through art they reach us in unexpected ways.

I used to think that I was primarily a philosophical thinker. While pursuing knowledge I began to feel like I was drying up so I picked up photography. I received so much affirmation from friends and family for my initial efforts that I began to lean back toward art as my primary form of expression. This may have been partially due to the fact that I was required to read and write for my education while art was purely voluntary and fun.

When I graduated from seminary and was no longer required to do so much writing I started to enjoyit again as a way to articulate what I was learning from life. Now I’m trying to find where these two vehicles of expression collide. I think and therefore I write. I feel and therefore I express. I want both my writing to convey art and my art to express truth.

At the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit I recently read that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin persuaded more people than all of the rest of the anti-slavery literature and speeches combined. This is the power of art in words.

While listening to Everything is Sound by Jason Mraz, I recently resonated with the Lyrics: “Whether it’s your birthday, or your dying day it’s a celebration to rejoice use your voice, and give wings to any your choice. Whatever you’re choosing right now, it’s right well where you are. You don’t need a vacation when there’s nothing to escape from.”

Travel is a gift that is best enjoyed as a living experience rather than a reclusive escape.

Such a positive outlook challenged me. Paul told the Thessalonians to always rejoice (1 Thess 5:16). From our birthdays to our dying days, God has given us much for which to rejoice and celebrate.

Somewhere along the way we forget that our choices give us a chance to spread our wings. We confine ourselves to merely surviving on the ground. This is about the time that I start need a vacation to escape. Travel is a gift that is best enjoyed as a living experience rather than a reclusive escape.

Unless we should think that Jason’s positivity is unrealistic poetry, he expresses later in the song that, “It’s a song that I’ve forgotten often. It doesn’t make wrong me wrong ’cause we all need the darkness to see the light in our own eyes.”

I have forgotten this song often but it is time to wake up and let the darkness I have experienced lend that much more value to the light in my life. Insights from artists have reached me again.

Book Review: Reading the Bible After Christendom

Book Review, Spirituality

A seismic shift has shaken the Western world in recent decades, pushing Christianity and the church out of the center of society and into the margins. The era often referred to as Christendom featured the religious arm of the church and the secular arm of the state cooperating to build a Christian civilization. The collapse of this long-standing arrangement raises profound implications for the life and ministry of the church.

After Christendom is a series of books that aims to explore these implications. Lloyd Pietersen carries this discussion into the realm of how we read the Bible. He proposes that “…the alliance between church and state from the second half of the fourth century onwards has resulted in ways of reading the Bible fundamentally alien to that of the earliest church.”

The demise of Christendom presents an opportunity to interpret Scripture from a perspective that is less hindered by privilege and more consistent with the context of the Bible’s original audience. Pietersen lays out his case for this fresh look at how we read the Bible in three parts.

The first part provides an historical overview of the origins of Christendom and how it has impacted the church’s approach to Scripture. Prior to receiving imperial favor there was a common theme that unified the teachings of the church fathers. “The early Christians clearly understood Jesus to be the interpretive key to the Bible.”

This Christocentric approach to Scripture began to erode in the 4th century. Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 brought unprecedented religious freedom but with the Emperor’s favor came the baggage of his direct influence. When Constantine called the Council of Nicaea he not merely observed but presided over the proceedings. Constantine’s influence over the church and its doctrine became the catalyst for Christendom.

This new era brought an orthodoxy not determined by the appeal to biblical interpretation but to the political power of an imperial decree. “Increasingly the Bible was being read from the perspective of those in power, resulting in readings that reinforced the church’s increasing wealth, sanctified a priesthood-laity divide and consequently established a patriarchal hierarchy within the church.” Pietersen suggests that we should employ a hermeneutic of suspicion to the wealth and power-influenced biblical interpretations of Christendom.

A sizable chapter four is devoted to the Anabaptist movement and the way that their subversive approach to Scripture during the Reformation provides insight for the present context. This chapter is key to understanding the author’s reasoning as well as the tone of the After Christendom series since it is sponsored by the Anabaptist Network.

The only major movement of the Reformation Era that rejected the use of the state as an arm of the church was the Anabaptist movement. This unpopular viewpoint drew criticism and even persecution from Catholic and Reformed movements alike. From the margins of society the Anabaptists faced a situation not unlike our own where their understanding of Scripture did not require maintaining the wealth and power of the status quo.

The author cites four Anabaptist hermeneutic principles. First, Anabaptist theology was Christocentric seeing all of the Bible as pointing to Jesus. They saw Jesus not merely as a redeemer but also as “…the example to imitate and the teacher to obey.” Second, they focused on a communal reading of Scripture. So much of our Bible reading and interpretation is personal today leaving us outside the experience of the early church which received and interpreted Scriptural writings in community.

Third, the Anabaptists focused on openness to the Spirit for understanding the Scripture more so than on reason, education and tradition. Fourth, they oriented their understanding of Scripture toward obedience rather than interpretation or knowledge. Their goal was not merely to establish good doctrine but to live out the teachings of Christ within their communities. Pietersen asserts that reading the Bible after Christendom will require all four of these elements.

We Are More Than What We Do

Life, Spirituality

It is sad how often we try to determine our own value by how much we feel that we have accomplished. There are several problems with this assessment. First, we tend to focus on this evaluation most when we feel the least accomplished. When things have not worked out as hoped in our lives we begin to reflect on our own apparent worthlessness.

The second problem is that the more often we conclude that we are worthless the more likely we are to live as if this is the case. Why try when nothing we endeavor to accomplish works anyway? This notion can be debilitating and can keep us from making progress toward our goals. Hope is one of our primary motivators. With the loss of hope goes the confidence that with time and effort our situation can improve.

The biggest problem with determining our own value by how much we have accomplished is that it leaves us inherently unstable. When we feel good about what we have done we have value. When we seem to fail or when we are no longer able to do what once made us feel accomplished, we are devalued. This ebb and flow can pick us up and beat us back down throughout our lives unless we learn to see our value somewhere higher.

This is especially important to understand during a time when so many are without work and spend many months looking for jobs. Research has shown that a prolonged job search without being hired can have a more devastating long-term effect on the human psyche than almost anything else that we can experience.

For others the challenge is struggling to move up in life while looking around and seeing others within their own age group who are well-established in their careers. This comparison can lead one to the devastating conclusion they they just don’t have what it takes to succeed.

So what is it that defines our worth? While struggling through this issue in my personal life I recently remembered a sermon by Henri Nouwen called “Being the Beloved” that I heard a few years ago. While watching it on YouTube I found strength in the reminder that who we are and what defines is that we are beloved sons and daughters of God.

All our lives we look for our identity, defining ourselves by what we have, what we do, and what people say about us. Each of these things leave us unstable and empty. What truly defines our worth and gives sustained hope is that we are God’s beloved children. This is our identity and our task is to claim it and to live under the influence of this reality.

Only when we understand that our worth is not wrapped up in what we have done but rather in a love that we have freely received, will we be able to break the grip of the idea that we are what we do. Believing that we are more than what we have done will then empower us to live out the value that we have received rather than fighting to prove our worth.

The Journey to Wellbeing #2

Life, Spirituality

There are certain points of pain that magnify our need for wellbeing. I think the one that impacts me the most is the social, which the book Wellbeing describes as “having strong relationships and love in your life.” I want to know that I am contributing to the lives of others, that I am a good friend and that I am loved by those in my life. When I returned from my travels I found that San Diego had become a lonely place. My group of friends it seems have scattered and moved on to new places or aspects of their lives and I have not done much for the last few years to replenish my relationships here.

When we don’t feel well connected to community we begin to beat ourselves up and to think that there must be something wrong with us or we would have more friends. The vicious cycle begins when we so dislike ourselves that we think others don’t care for us either. The more we retreat into isolation the more our insecurities are affirmed until we have walled ourselves into self-made prison cells of isolation.

I think that part of the reason why we struggle to make changes even when we know that we need to is that we allow ourselves to be tied down by the way things have always been. I could connect more at my job or at my church but I have been at both of them for several years without doing so. How am I supposed to all of the sudden engage now? I think this is part of why travel is appealing. There is no history to hold me down. What’s to lose? Engage every person you meet, enjoy every meal and take a picture of every place. What do you have to lose?

Somehow we need to remind ourselves that it is not impossible to create new routines. We have to believe that if life is worth living the way we live it is worth changing. I think that at the heart of believing life can change for the better is the underlying faith that we are beloved children of God and that he wants us to live our lives to the fullest. We may not always know what this means or how this can be true in light of our current realities, yet if we truly believe that God loves us as much as he says does, it will change our outlook.

Henri Nouwen once said that we all hope for a good life and define what this means in various ways. We sometimes base the value of our lives on what people think of us. At times we build our confidence on what we have accomplished. Other times we define ourselves according to how much we possess. Throughout our lives each of these will go up and down. Sometimes we will feel loved and other times criticized or disconnected. At times we will have a lot and sometimes we may lose it all. There are times where we feel like we can accomplish whatever we want and others where we feel hopeless to do almost anything. If we are counting on any of these for stability our lives will always fluctuate above and below the line of wellbeing.

The one thing that holds true through all of these is that we are God’s beloved children. He says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” (Jeremiah 31:3) This is just as true when we feel worthless and that our lives are over as it is when we feel accomplished and like things are going quite well. If we can begin to believe how much God loves us, we will see our lives and the people in them through new eyes. This will raise our perceived limits on how much others can love us and how good life can be. This is the place to start in the journey back to wellbeing.

The Journey to Wellbeing #1

Life, Spirituality

There are seasons of life that demand so much attention in particular areas that we lose sight of others. Finishing up four years of seminary has caused me to think about this a lot in recent months. I learned to survive working full time and studying at the graduate level by a selective focus that allowed me to ignore areas that seemed to difficult to initiate or to maintain. The routines that I developed in survival mode have become harder to shake than I would have thought. Reentry from graduate studies into the rest of my life is not automatic as it turns out.

My last six months of seminary wore me down. It was all I could do to try to maintain a positive outlook on life. It seemed that several years of unbalanced living had caught up to me. Staring at the finish line awoke my senses to the rest of my life that was still there and needed to be addressed. In school mode I trained myself to focus on completing the next assignment, finishing the current class, making it through one quarter at a time. A graduation is called a commencement, however, because it is really only a beginning. Finishing a degree program is not meant to complete our pursuits but to ignite us to follow them with enligthened vigor. This overwhelmed me as I pondered how much of my life I had learned to tune out just to get by.

Several months after graduating I found myself living the same life that I did as a student. I was staying up too late, working on too many projects at once, rushing from place to place, not taking care of myself and feeling increasingly disconnected from friends. The only thing that seemed to snap me out of my routine was traveling.

During the road trip that I took back in July to Northern California and Southern Oregon, I had to constantly remind myself to slow down and appreciate the moment. Although I thought this roadtrip had set me straight I found that within six weeks I was still stuck in the same rut so I bought the All You Can Jet pass from jetBlue to take a journey of reflection and rediscovery. Travel does not repair anything and it is not an end in itself but it is one of the few things that pulls me away from the daily thoughts and routines that weigh me down. It helps me to appreciate the beauty of the moments that I overlook at home.

Now that I am back I am trying to begin anew to understand what it means to live a good life post-graduation. This quest has caused me to begin reading a book called Wellbeing for which polls were taken all over the world to determine that the five essential components of wellbeing are career, social, financial, physical and community. The spiritual is what motivates many through each of these areas. We tend to focus on only one or a few of these at a time and as a result the areas that we let slip wear on us throughout our daily lives.

I resonate with this because I have experienced how much one or another area of my life can affect my perception of everything else. In my next post I will talk about which of these areas seems to impact me the most…

Where the Surf Takes You

Spirituality, Travel

We are familiar with the expression “You have to go where the wind takes you.” This is a sailing metaphor which as a sailboat owner I can confirm makes a lot of sense. You may have a destination in mind but your not going to be able to go directly to it under wind power. When you set out to go sailing you don’t really know what kind of route it will take to get to your destination. The wind determines that and the wind changes.

The other day while enjoying the waves at Juan Dolio beach in the Dominican Republic I realized that this metaphor also applies to the surf. When you step into the ocean you agree to go where the surf takes you. You can fight the waves but as one wave after another pushes you around you realize that you have entered into a force far larger and more powerful than yourself.
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Those who swim in the ocean realize that they are taking a significant risk. Yet the beauty of the beach and the allure of the water on a warm day draw us in anyway. We understand the reward so we dive into that which under adverse conditions could drown the most experienced swimmer.

Not everybody takes the risk to swim in the ocean. I can think of at least two reasons why some would choose to avoid this risk. The first is that those who have not learned to swim or are still tentative about their abilities may fear that they will not be able to handle themselves in the water. The second reason is that some may not like the temperature of the ocean.

While reveling in how warm the Caribbean was I heard a man call out to his wife to jump in. As she walked toward the water., I heard her say, “It is too warm. I don’t like when the water is this warm. I wanted to ask, “Have you been in cold water?” I grew up in the Midwest and my earliest experiences with a large body of water were in Lake Michigan. If you want to know cold water jump off the pier with us next summer and try to swim across the channel that connects the Great Lake with Portage Lake. Better yet, jump into Lake Superior off Minnesota’s North shore like some of my crazy friends from this frigid state. Even in sunny san Diego, the ocean is not all that warm. Sure you get used to it as we alway say but there is still something magical about swimming in an ocean or a sea that is truly warm.

Fear of what might happen to us and disinterest in the adventure that diving in would bring, are the same reasons we avoid the “surf” in our lives, The ocean is uncertain. Solid ground keeps us under control and feeling that we can decide what will happen to us.

Fear prevents adventure and keeps us from living fully alive. A life directed by fear will cause us to one day day look back and realize that we never lived the way we wanted to nor did the things that we felt called to do.

Disinterest in anything that is not exactly the way we like it also holds us back. I have wanted to become a good surfer since I moved to san Diego. What holds me back? Part of the problem is that the water is uncomfortably cool and also it has been a struggle to try to get any good at it. More comfortable and less risky are the sports that I feel confident enough with to feel under control.

Engaging the ocean can seem hard, uncertain, strange and rough. Despite all of this we are called into the water to swim. We go where the surf takes us because we know that the one who made the waves also controls them, guiding our lives through all of the uncertainties to the course that will enable us to live fully alive.

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Away in a Manger: A Christmas Letter

Spirituality

When we sing Away in a Manger, we still picture a crib for Jesus’ bed. This is perhaps because we don’t have anything to relate a manger to in our own experience. Laying a newborn baby down to rest in anything but a comfortable little bed is unimaginable to us.

One of the unique features of the Christmas story is that due to the intervention of history, a Roman Emperor’s call for a census, Jesus came into the world under circumstances that were far from ideal. Rather than preparing to give birth in the safety and comfort of her home, Mary embarked with Joseph on an arduous journey to Bethlehem in the final days of her pregnancy.

Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary resided, lie in the hills of Northern Israel, not far from the Sea of Galilee. Since Joseph came from Bethlehem in Judaea, just outside of Jerusalem, they had to travel a long way by donkey and by foot back to his hometown to register for the census. Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, it would seem likely that Joseph sought out relatives with whom to stay in his hometown. Although the traditional interpretation of Joseph and Mary’s accommodations is that there was no room in the “inn”, a closer look shows that the same word is more often translated as “home”.

Ancient Near Eastern society valued hospitality, especially extending a warm welcome to family. This is why it seems unlikely that Joseph would have needed to stay at a local inn. Since Joseph almost certainly had relatives in his hometown, how did he and Mary end up staying among the animals on the night of Jesus’ birth? Two factors that likely contributed to this unusual circumstance were a lack of space to provide adequate hospitality and the design of Jewish homes during that time period.

First, the biblical narrative suggests that the predicament was that there was not enough room for Joseph and Mary. It seems strange that among family a woman due to give birth any moment would not receive priority. This may have been the simple logistical problem that too many family members converged on Bethlehem for the census at the same time. While traveling slowly to keep Mary safe, it is also possible that they were among the last to arrive in town leaving them to claim the last bit of available space. Yet another possibility is that Joseph’s family disapproved of the perceived scandal surrounding Mary’s pregnancy and treated them accordingly.

The second factor is that the design of ancient Jewish homes typically involved a single level with blocked off rooms and a common area that typically housed the family’s domestic animals at night. If there were no rooms left for Joseph and Mary, the only place for them to stay was in the common area of the house, not unlike our living rooms, among the animals. What then was the manger that Mary lay Jesus in after wrapping him in swaddling clothes? Far from the quaint little wooden cradle of our imagination, Jesus’ bed was a single block of stone with the top chiseled away to leave space to hold animal feed. The King of Heaven come down, lay in a trough meant not for holding babies but for feeding animals.

This is a manger found among the ruins at Megiddo in Israel.

This is a manger found among the ruins at Megiddo in Israel.


When our tour guide in Israel first pointed out this manger among the ruins at Megiddo, the group found it hard to believe her. It was so different than we had imagined. Yet a significant part of the Christmas story is that from the moment Jesus entered the world, he identified with people everywhere who have no proper place to lay their head. This newborn baby came to us not for the comfort of a well-suited home but to be received by those for whom he came to give his life.

How do we welcome Jesus, providing hospitality like we would for close friends or family during the Christmas season? Jesus said that whatever we do for those in need, we do to him (Matt.25:37). We provide hospitality to Jesus by feeding the hungry, giving drinks to the thirsty, inviting in the lonely, providing clothes for those who cannot afford them, caring for those who are sick, and visiting those who are in prison.

If Joseph and Mary were to visit us with their newborn baby Jesus, would we leave them to sleep in our living rooms, providing that which was meant to hold food for our pets as a place for the baby to lay? Or would we offer the very best space in the house for them to rest? How we respond to Jesus’ challenge to care for those who are in need is the best indicator of the kind of hospitality that we are offering to him with our lives. Let’s dedicate ourselves to assisting those who lay their heads in “mangers” all over the world this Christmas night.

If you are interested in connecting to organizations in East Africa that care for the needy, please let me know and I will be happy to do whatever I can to help provide you with an opportunity to show hospitality to Jesus by loving people.

The Reliability of the Bible

Spirituality

I recently taught a class at my church entitled For the Bible Tells Me So: A Discussion of the Bible’s Reliability and How and Why I Can Trust It. It is the second session in a program that we call FloodU or Flood University, consisting of foundational classes addressing spiritual questions, growth, relationships, and transformation. If you are part of Flood or live in the San Diego area, I’d encourage you to look into these three four week courses all offered free of charge.

I have provided a link to the PDF of the presentation that I gave and you are welcome to download it and take a look. For those of you who attended the session, it will make more sense since the talk filled out its contents further. I will be tweaking the presentation in the future and will update this link as I do.

If you are interested in further dialogue about this subject, I would be happy to correspond or meet up to talk about it in person. You can contact me through the site.

For further reading, a few books that I would recommend are:
- New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell
- The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Craig L. Blomberg
- The Case for Christianity, Lee Strobel
- Who Moved the Stone, Frank Morison

Click here to download the presentation.

I am encouraged tonight by II Kings 6:16 where we are reminded “Don’t be afraid…Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Here in Africa I am beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. The magnitude of the need here and the countless arms reaching for help make me wonder if anything I do here will ever matter. It is hard not to feel somewhat depressed by the violent oppression that so often ravages this continent. Yet, I am reminded by this passage that although I may be overwhelmed, I am not outnumbered.

Staring at the vast Syrian army, the man in this story also felt overwhelmed and that nothing he or anyone else could do would matter. When his spiritual eyes were opened, however, he saw that the power of God was greater than all of the violent oppression that the Syrians could inflict. I’m thankful for the reminder that God’s power is not only greater than my own weakness but also greater than all that oppresses East Africa. It is true that by myself I cannot change anything but I pray that God, through his power, might use me to help bring needed changed to this beautiful but needy part of the world.

Africa, Current Trip, Spirituality