Tuesday, March 29, 2011

So that eye thing

Just because some of you keep asking. . .

I saw the corneal specialist yesterday. The good news: there's a quick solution to all of this. The bad news: It's PRK laser surgery, which would cost a mere $5000. So if anybody's feeling particularly generous, let me know.

Barring that, there are two options. Glasses, or contacts. I'm borderline for glasses, because, post-surgery, the focal point is fairly different between the two eyes. As in, I'm nearsighted in both, but one focuses about 3 inches out, the other about 12 inches out. And that could make for some issues with fitting glasses that don't look weird or give me headaches on a regular basis.

I'm still not a candidate for a normal contact, because the cornea has some steepening toward my nose. The option left is a lens that's specifically crafted to fit the ridges on my cornea, which theoretically should lock the lens into place. Usually the specialist doesn't like making that kind of lens for a person with a graft, but in my case it seems the best option.

Complicating all of this is the fact that I'm 42, so am right on the cusp of needing reading glasses or bifocals, so no matter what we do now, in another couple years we're back to looking at some sort of glasses. It's all so much juggling of a lot of complicating factors. For now, he's ordering the custom lens and I'll give it a try when it shows up next week, and we'll see how that goes.

One idea he mentioned was to pray I develop cataracts, because then my insurance would pay for the PRK surgery. I'm not sure I'm ready to ask for that yet.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Review: Unshaken


In early 2010, Dan Woolley found himself trapped beneath the rubble of Haiti's Hotel Montana, following the 7.0 earthquake that devastated that country. In Haiti as part of a media production team for Compassion International, Woolley had just entered the hotel when the earthquake hit, bringing it down on him and all those inside. For 65 hours he struggled to survive, cobbling together a strategy that included iPhone apps, memories of Man vs. Wild episodes, prayer, worship, and a digital camera. Encouraged by the hope of friendly voices, thrust to the depths of despair as hunger and thirst set in, his body broken and yet unable to do anything but wait, Woolley experienced the full range of emotion and physical trauma. And now, having been rescued from that place, he is telling his personal piece of that immense national tragedy.

Note #1: I went to college with Dan and his wife. We were all at Azusa Pacific University at the same time. Not that we were friends, but I do remember them from back in the day.

Unshaken is certainly a gripping story, and a deeply personal one as well. It goes beyond the struggles Woolley faced underneath all that rubble to explore the struggles faced in his life and marriage, struggles compounded by a wife stricken with clinical depression. It asks difficult questions about the nature of faith and how we live it out in our lives. And it speaks of hope, hope for redemption and hope for change. None of us has to stay where we are; we are all given opportunities to move toward health and fulness in our lives.

There was one area, though, where the book left me frustrated. It stems from that common Evangelical tendency to elevate personal experience over most anything else. Woolley does mention multiple times that the purpose of this book is to tell his story, and not to explore the larger question of what it means that 200,000 people died (and many more still suffer even today). But I wonder if we can actually do that: isn't it a bit insensitive to say "here's my story of survival which shows God's grace" even while ignoring the epic tragedy endured by so many?

I don't really fault the author for this; as I mentioned, he does at least recognize the issue even if he chooses to sidestep it. I just wish we in the church could be more sensitive about praising Jesus for the wonderful things he's done in our lives, when so many more are still, like Job, sitting in the dust mourning their losses.

Then again, it should probably be pointed out that Woolley is doing his part to help out in the ongoing recovery efforts in Haiti. His website points toward recovery work which people can support, and a portion of the sales of Unshaken go to support Compassion International's work in Haiti. That is to be commended.

Perhaps even more so now, following floods in Australia, earthquakes in New Zealand, and the tsunami in Japan, people need reason for hope, and assurance that even in the darkest places God is still present. Unshaken is a good reminder that even in the valley of the shadow of death, God never forsakes his children.

Note #2: Thanks to Zondervan for sending me a free copy of Unshaken for the purposes of this review.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Concert Update

As mentioned earlier, the Signature Brass Quintet was scheduled to share a concert with the GHPSO clarinets on April 9. Last week we learned the clarinets aren't able to do their piece of the show. The good news (for us): the brass quintet now gets to do a complete concert on April 9. The bad news (for us): we now have an extra hour of music to polish. Which raises the stress level just a tiny bit.

But that's an exciting problem to have.

In case you missed the earlier announcement:

The Signature Brass is now performing an entire evening concert of brass music, from baroque to pops and everything in between. Saturday, April 9, 7:00 p.m. St. John's Episcopal Church, Gig Harbor, WA.

This concert is the spring edition of the Gig Harbor Peninsula Symphony Orchestra concert series.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: The Importance of Being Foolish



Few people get to the heart of things like Brennan Manning. Like a personal trainer, he challenges all the self-justification, the excuses, the laziness in our spiritual lives. With hawk-like eyes he discerns the murky depths of the soul and pulls it screaming into the light where we see it for the ugly thing it is.

And yet, nobody seems to understand grace like Brennan Manning. No sooner does he excoriate our propensity to sin but that he jumps in with the marvelous good news of the gospel: God loves us more than we can ever hope, dream, or imagine.

In The Importance of Being Foolish, Manning challenges three temptations common to our lives: the temptations to security, pleasure, and power. He debunks the thought that any of these have any place in the life of a disciple of Christ. Security is impossible to achieve, pleasure never satisfies, and power always comes at the expense of others. Pursuit of any of these proves that the soul has yet to fully trust God to protect, to please, to provide.

The only worthwhile pursuit, according to Manning, is the pursuit of the mind of God. For in God's mind we find that we are the beloved of God; that God promises safety in his arms, joy in his heart, and victory over the things that weigh us down. As we pursue our heavenly Father, we also find ourselves drawn into his Kingdom work, proclaiming and seeking God's holiness in this world. As we seek the power and love of Jesus, a love revealed in all its fullness on the cross, we are filled with the marvelous gifts of God: freedom from fear of death, forgiving love, poverty of spirit, selfless service, a joyful heart, fidelity to commitments, and reckless love.

One thing I so appreciate about Manning is his amazing attention to the craft of writing. He gets to the point, and does so quickly. There are no superfluous words here. It seems Manning doesn't have much space for extraneous pondering. Some of the more memorable lines from this book:

"In the Scriptures intelligence does not consist in the more or less brilliant performance of the mind. It consists in recognizing the omnipresent reality of God. . .From the biblical perspective, a great theologian may be stupid; an illiterate washerwoman praising God for the sunset immeasurably more intelligent."

"Paul's cheeks are still streaked [with tears] because of the tepidity, rank insincerity, spiritual adultery, indifference to prayer, ignorance of God's Word, comfortable piety, and apostolic sloth that dapple the Christian life in America today."

"It is symptomatic that, despite the church having been around for two thousand years, the mass of people still pass Christianity by. Why? Because the visible presence of Jesus Christ is rarely present in Christians as a whole. We will never move people to Jesus Christ and the gospel merely by making speeches about them. . .contact with Christians should be an experience that proves to people that the gospel is a power that transforms the whole of life."

"There is no Christ the humanitarian, Christ the master of interpersonal relationships, or Christ the buddy. It is Christ the Lord and Savior who calls us to repent, change our lives, and strike out in a new direction."

"The Christ of Paul was not merely a great teacher, an example of a great man, or a symbol of man's noblest aspirations; he was Lord and Savior. To reinterpret Jesus any other way is to bleed Christianity of its point."

"Life in the Spirit is the thrill and the excitement of being loved by and falling in love with Jesus Christ. If the Spirit is not fire, it does not exist."

It's been a good ten years since I last read Manning, and, although it was challenging, I have to say I was glad to let him in my life again. He's had a strong influence in my life over the years, and this book, like all his others, challenged me regarding the sincerity of this thing called the Christian walk, and reminded me again just how real and all-consuming is the love of God.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday

- We halted the normal flow of worship this morning, broke into small groups, and spent time praying for Japan. It was a beautiful thing to see, an entire body gathering into circles, young and old and men and women and children lifting up those who are suffering. I am grateful for a church that knows how to pray.

- Proof that the tsunami hit Washington (according to Doug). I think it makes sense. . .

- I'm heading to Colorado tomorrow, spending 4 days in Estes Park at a planning meeting for Feast 2011. Looking forward to hanging out with some friends, and (hopefully) seeing some blue sky. It's been a long time since WA saw the sun.

- The dr. thinks I have pseudo-gout. And the eye doctor decided I needed a couple weeks lens-free before attempting another fit. So I'm limping on one foot and blind in one eye.

- 5 years ago today was my first day as pastor at Lakebay Community Church. And they've finally stopped throwing me parties. I suppose that means they think I'm finally just one of them. That's good.

- We started watching Downton Abbey on netflix. Good stuff. Sort of like Upstairs Downstairs, but in the country. Speaking of Upstairs Downstairs, they're bringing it back.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen. . .

Introducing The Signature Brass Quintet.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Identity

Suppose the school from which you graduated changes its name. When people ask "where did you got to school?" do you give them the old name? Or the new one?

This is a real issue, since I graduated from Watson Groen Christian School, which is now Shoreline Christian School. I did some graduate work at Western Evangelical Seminary, which is now George Fox Evangelical Seminary. And I received my M. Div. from the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, which is now the Biblical Seminary at Fresno Pacific.

It's like having my own little identity crisis.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ashes to Ashes

I have to be honest. . .I'm not so sure about this Ash Wednesday thing. Not even that sure about the whole Lenten season.

Imagine you really really really really love somebody. So you buy them a really costly gift. More costly than anything you've ever purchased. But you love them, so it's worth it.

Imagine they open the gift, and they love it. They're overwhelmed by it. They can't say "thanks" enough. You can see their joy, and it makes you happy. And over the coming weeks, as they tell the story to their friends, as they show off the gift and gush about your generosity, it makes you happy. To see their joy and feel their appreciation.

But then. . .imagine they start focusing on that generosity piece. In fact, they stop really thinking about the gift, and instead spend all their time talking about your generosity. Wouldn't that bother you just a bit? You didn't give them the gift just so they could perpetually tell you how wonderful you are (well, if you did, your motives would be suspect).

And then. . .imagine it's not just your generosity they keep mentioning. They start harping on how they didn't deserve it, that you were too generous, that somebody like them isn't worthy of this gift. Wouldn't that start to grate on your nerves? You gave them the gift out of love, and your love proves they are, in fact, worth the price of the gift. I'm sure a momentary "Oh, you shouldn't have!" is appropriate. Even a couple "no, really, it's just to expensive"s wouldn't be out of the question.

But suppose, a year later, around the anniversary of the gift, your beloved starting acting morose. A little too serious. Somewhat sad. And when you asked why, they told you, "I'm just remembering how expensive that gift was, and how I'm not really worthy of such a gift from such a wonderful person." And then. . .they did it year after year after year. Always going on and on about the cost, the price, and how a dirty, unworthy, shameful person such as they didn't deserve that kind of gift. How amazing you were, that you would give a little wretch like them such a precious gift.

I know, I know. Maybe this isn't the overall purpose of Lent. But isn't it what it often becomes in our little corner of the world, our little Christian campout? Doesn't it often become a reflection on the heavy price paid by God, and our unworthiness of that gift?

Too much of our theology and practice came of age in a medieval age of kings and emperors and serfs and vassals. In that world, should the king bestow you with a gift, the only proper response was deference, reflection of the amazing generosity of the king to stoop in such a way as to offer such a blessing to an unworthy little worm. For ages stories would be told and songs sung of the generosity of the king, that one of such a high station would give gifts to lowly peasants.

But that's not the biblical story. The biblical story is "How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called sons and daughters of God." When I give my daughters a gift, I do appreciate a little gratitude on their part. But that's not why I give it. I give it because I love them and want to see the joy on their faces when they open it. And if my daughter would spend the next 6 months after Christmas repeating the mantra, "thank you, daddy - I am such a horrible daughter, so lousy, such a miserable wretch, and you are so amazing, so wonderful, so much higher than I. . .I don't deserve you or your gift" at some point I would say "stop it!" Or I'd sign her up for counseling.

There's a time and a place to remember this great gift of God to us in Jesus, and certainly each generation needs to hear the story again, but I'm just not a fan of the way it often slides into low self-esteem Christianity. The puritan heritage that speaks of us as worms and lower than dirt and wretches, that sees us as lowly vassals lucky even to mop the floor in God's great Kingdom. Instead, we're the prodigal child welcomed home with a party, with a celebration.

Regardless of how we tell the story, we still stand on this side of Easter. I'm not sure it's healthy to try to go back pre-Easter. I'm not sure we ought to spend so much time lamenting the sins of which we're already forgiven. God wants to throw a party, and we're still fixated on the dirt that's already been washed away.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Needing something new

Not really anything new to say. I just didn't want my ponderings on hell to remain the top post here for too long. I've got a couple thoughts brewing regarding Ash Wednesday and Lent, which I hope to post next week. But for now, too much other stuff calls. A wedding tomorrow, sabbatical planning to complete, finalizing Sunday's sermon, a Feast planning meeting in Colorado in 10 days, a wedding in April. . .too much to do.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Hell?

A few weeks ago I did a Q&A sermon. One of the questions was about hell. I spent some time discussing the scant biblical evidence for the traditional view, and riffed a bit on some of the other alternative readings of the doctrine of hell (see: annihilationism, apocatastasis). Suddenly, the internet is alive with the biggest hell debate we've seen in generations. I had no idea I was so influential.

Oh, wait. It's not me. It's just my gift of timing. The true story is that Rob Bell's new book is about to come out, and rumor has it he's making the claim that in the end Love Wins and everybody is saved. The heresy hunters are coming unglued and unhinged. Rob Bell has finally left the camp, they're claiming, and joining the ranks of all those heretics who deny the 'biblical' understanding of hell as a place of eternal torment with flames and devils and burning sulpher.

Eugene Cho talks about it here.
Jesus Needs New PR tells us how to survive the book release here.
The NakedPastor offers up his opinion cartoon-style here.
Out of Ur gets into the discussion here.
And in perhaps my favorite piece on the subject, the Slacktivist deftly covers the issue front to back here

Good timing, all of this, since I preached on it last week. And not everybody appreciated it.

One interesting observation here: Hell seems to be right up there with the divinity of Christ and the Virgin Birth as the most important Christian doctrines.

Which is sad, because, as I said in my sermon, the biblical basis for the traditional view of hell is sketchy at best. In fact, it's almost nonexistent. Nowhere is it found in the Hebrew scriptures. Nowhere is it found in the epistles of Paul. Hell as torment only shows up a few times in the gospels, and each time the context pushes us away from a literal reading. The Lake of Fire shows up in Revelation, but so do dragons and seas turning to blood and stars falling from the sky, and nobody takes those as literal descriptions.

To be clear: The Bible does teach there is judgment on sin, that there is a price both here and in eternity for rejecting Christ, for living lives of unrighteousness, for neglecting the poor and needy and homeless and alien and orphan and prisoner and widow and marginalized. And there is reward for choosing to live in Christ, for accepting his offer of salvation, for choosing to live justly and righteously.

The question comes down to the nature of hell (about which the Bible isn't clear), and the timing of hell. Is it eternal? Is it temporary? Or, to be more accurate, the timespan spent in hell by those who go there. Is hell a place of eternal torment for those who reject Christ, or a holding place that eventually releases its inhabitants? Do people in hell suffer torture for all eternity? Or are they consumed in the fire, annihilated?

Here's the truth: you can build a biblical case that hell is a place of ongoing, eternal torment. But you can also build a case that those who are judged as unrighteous truly die in every sense - they cease to exist. And, you can also build a case that in the end every person who has ever lived will spend eternity in the loving presence of God.

Which, by the way, is not the same as Universalism. That's a cheap shot that denies the intricacies of the theology at play. Universalism states that it doesn't matter what you do, everybody gets a free pass to heaven. Some do believe that, but it's not a biblical position. What people like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and my friend Randy Klassen are saying is that nobody gets a free pass into Heaven. All are saved in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. It's just that some receive that salvation in this earthly life, while others finally own up to their sin, and receive God's grace, after suffering the torments of judgment (yes, it sort of sounds like Purgatory. . .but it's not).

(you know, even C.S. Lewis postulated that people could take the bus out of hell, if they would so choose).

The problem, to me, is that we're too invested in this Dante-an vision of hell, and can't really read the texts as they are. And we're too afraid of new ideas. Thus, whether it's Pastor Dan simply stating there are alternatives, or Rob Bell staking the claim that The Alternative is actually correct, people react instead of respond. Anger and rage come flying out, rather than healthy discussion. Accusations are made, rather than the robust work of theological debate.

And, truly finally. . .I'm not saying I agree with Rob Bell (how could I? I haven't read the book yet) or Brian McLaren (I stopped reading him before he got to his Hell book). I do, however, think there is a nugget of truth in this idea that our idea of hell is wrong. Mostly because, as Bell points out in the promo video, I think it both comes from, and paints, the wrong view of God. God IS love. God HAS wrath as a temporary response to sin. If hell is eternal, than wrath becomes an eternal quality of God. But that's not biblical. His anger is but for a moment, his love for a lifetime. His anger passes, his love endures. And if that be true, than hell cannot endure.

(Oh, and this - I know I left the exegesis off the table for this discussion. Some of the links above lead to some more theological discussions, but that wasn't really the purpose of this post today.)