Monday, June 29, 2009

Worshipping an almost all-powerful God

I just discovered a great humor blog.

Now, I should warn you that although my taste in reading is pretty eclectic, my taste in humor tends to run toward the dry and ironic. (Yes, I admit, sometimes that can get out of hand. Since becoming a Christian, I've been called out for my sarcasm more than once. I do think there's an appropriate place for dry wit, and I'm still trying to figure out where to draw the line. But that's a post for another day.)

So with that caveat, I'd like to recommend Stuff Christians Like. It's written by a guy who grew up in the church, a pastor's kid, who combines wry observations with biblical truth. It's evident he really loves the Lord and loves the church. At the same time, he's willing to gently poke fun, using tongue-in-cheek humor to call attention to things that really need it.

And boy, did this post hit home for me.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Of C.S. Lewis and wallpaper removal

This week I'm removing the wallpaper in our master bathroom.

It's needed to be done for years. The paper isn't awful, really — it's white with a diamond pattern I like to call "Grandpa's Pajamas" — but it's dated and poorly applied. And wallpaper isn't my thing, so down it comes.

Our home's previous owners put the paper up to cover another wallpaper pattern that was too dark for their taste. This means to get to bare walls, I'm essentially removing two rooms' worth of wallpaper instead of one — double the fun!

Beneath the Grandpa's Pajamas pattern is a deep blue seashell pattern which the previous owners painted with primer so that Grandpa's Pajamas would stick.

(Beneath that are the subcontractors' instructions to one another, e.g. "no backsplash" on the wall behind a sinkless counter. This is the last room in the house to be de-papered and painted. I think I'll miss discovering their little sub-to-sub notes.)

Often, I'll work on home projects without music or anything going on in the background. The quiet combined with the repetitive task allows me to think, or pray, or sing old Elton John songs in my head. Or sometimes all three.

Peeling off the layers of wallpaper yesterday afternoon put me in mind of the part in C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace has been transformed into a dragon, and he tries to remove the dragon-skin himself.

[Sidenote: if we're going to be friends, you may as well know that I believe The Chronicles of Narnia should be read in the order in which the books were originally published, rather than the chronological order imposed on the series in the 1990s. The new order places The Magician's Nephew first, where the original order places The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first. The movies are being released in the books' originally published order, a testament to the fact that the reordering was misguided and wrongheaded. If you've only read them in the new (wrong) order, we can still be friends - if you'll repent and re-read them in the original order.]

So back to Eustace. His greed and selfishness have led him to dragonhood (or his dragonish heart has been manifested in his outward appearance), and all his efforts to change back into a human boy have proven futile.

One night, Eustace-as-a-dragon meets Aslan, who tells Eustace to follow him. He obeys, and the lion leads him to a pool-like well. Dragon-Eustace has a sore foreleg from a stolen armband he put on before he was transformed, and he thinks a bath in the well will soothe his swollen limb. But Aslan tells him he must undress before he can bathe. Later, Eustace tells the story to his cousin Edmund:

I was just going to say that I couldn't undress because I hadn't any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that's what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and , instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.

But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that's all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I'll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.

Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

The the lion said — but I don't know if it spoke — "You will have to let me undress you." I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

The very first tear he made was do deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know — if you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off - just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt - and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me - I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again. You'd think me simply phoney if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they've no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian's, but I was so glad to see them.

Eustace emerges from his dragon-state a new creature — not perfect, but completely changed from the boy he had been.

What a beautiful picture of sin, repentance, submission, faith, and God's work through all of it.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has always been my favorite book of the series, even when I first read it as an unchurched, atheistic twelve-year-old. The imagery is powerful and memorable... so much so that here I am, decades later, recalling it as I strip layers of wallpaper from my bathroom walls.

And wishing I had Aslan's claws to help with the job.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

God and Time

What do you believe about God's relationship to time?

This is not a heady theological question with no practical application. Far from it. Our beliefs about God and time affect our perspective on so many things - our past, our future, our relationships, how we think of the world around us, and certainly how we pray.

My son Matt has written an excellent blog post on the topic. Go check it out, and say hi while you're there.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Rwanda revisited

Exactly fifteen years ago, the tiny African nation of Rwanda was in the throes of ethnic genocide.

If you've seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, you have a snapshot of what happened there: in 100 days, nearly one million people — one-fifth of the country's population — were brutally murdered by their own countrymen. Neighbors. Friends.

One million people — the population of Detroit — in 100 days. Using only guns and machetes.

That's ten thousand people every day.

To wrap your mind around that, imagine the casualties of 9/11, times two. Now imagine that same number of people dying on September 12th. And then again on the 13th. And the 14th. And the 15th... and so on, every day, until Christmas.


Exactly four years ago, just a few months after Hotel Rwanda was released, I boarded an airplane bound (eventually) for that tiny country. I was on a team with nine other IT professionals on a 12-day ministry trip sent by Mars Hill Bible Church. (You can read a little about that trip in the archives.)

I went on the trip to help with software training for the staff of World Relief's Rwanda office, located in the capital city of Kigali. I walked into the experience thinking I had something to offer them. I had no idea they were about to turn my world upside down.

By the time I left Rwanda, my heart was broken open by the country's gracious, brave, incredibly beautiful people. Although the horror of the past continues to affect them, they are not pitiable victims, but rather strong, faithful, forgiving people whose joy and hope seem boundless.

I wanted to stay there — a sentiment echoed by every member of the team — to learn the language, to worship side-by-side with Rwandan friends, to teach software classes and explore the hilly green countryside and talk to people without need of a translator.

I don't mean to romanticize this too much — Rwanda is the only place I've ever seen RPGs up close and personal — but I can honestly say I left a piece of my heart there. The Sara Groves video I Saw What I Saw, inspired by her own trip to Rwanda, wipes me out every time I see it. (If you can watch it without reaching for the Kleenex, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.)

But family and work beckoned me back to the U.S., and I never got much further than mwaramutse ("good morning" in Kinyarwanda) and sawa ("OK" in Swahili). Several months later our family decided to change churches, and my Rwanda connection was seemingly lost.


A few weeks ago, I met a Rwandan woman who recently moved to our area, and I felt my heart tugged again. Maybe a few more phrases in Kinyarwanda would help our conversation along the next time we meet.

Soon after that, a new friend wrote me a note on Facebook: "I was checking out your blog and saw you went to Rwanda... I'm certain there is not one other country I have devoted my studies to more, or maybe even my heart."

Recently I learned that a Christian psychologist whose blog I follow is going to Rwanda with three other psychologists later this month. Their goal, he writes, is "to immerse ourselves into the culture to learn how best to provide trauma training and counseling education at the graduate level for pastors and key leaders of the church right in Rwanda." (The moment I read that statement, I was ready to dig up my passport and pack a bag.)


Last week, I was looking on Zondervan's Web site for a book recommended by one of my professors when I came across three other books, all by Rwandan authors. The titles reflect the joy and hope I witnessed firsthand — joy that is not determined by circumstance, and hope born of forgiveness, born of faith in the One who forgives.

It seems to me that in the midst of my own struggles — fiscal, relational, personal — this is just the message I need.

Maybe I need Africa more than Africa needs me.

Maybe we all do.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Penn Says: A Gift of Respect

A friend recently pointed me to the video blog of Penn Jillette (the tall, bearded, speaking half of the magic duo Penn & Teller).

I'm sure I'm late to the party — I had no idea Penn Jillette had a radio program at one time, or that he has a popular vlog "Penn Says", or that he can be followed on Twitter. I didn't know anything about Mr. Jillette beyond his onstage work as a magician.

Penn Jillette is an atheist, and vocal about his views. I was an atheist until my sophomore year in college, so I understand a little about where he's coming from.

I watched the video my friend pointed me to, then watched several other "Penn Says" entries. Right away, I was struck by Jillette's intellectual honesty. Also, I could see he places a high value on respect for others.* But what struck me more than anything was that he is not accustomed to being treated with a similar respect by people who disagree with his views. And that saddens me.

What is it about evangelicals that we have such a hard time respecting people whose opinions don't align with our own? Why do we feel the need to go on the defensive? Are we really so insecure in our faith that we can't look beyond a person's tough, sometimes spiny exterior and see the fellow human underneath?

Do we really believe the atheist is created by God, in His image?

If so, why do we have so much trouble showing it?

*Be advised, many of Jillette's YouTube commenters do not seem to share that value.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The reason I will never Twitter

Last week, Time magazine ran a feature titled How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live.

I doubt I'll ever be a Twitterer. Nothing against those who Twitter, but I know the stuff that goes on in my head... I can't imagine people would want to hear it on a moment-by-moment basis.

Need proof? On a typical Saturday, my "tweets" would probably go something like this:

9:30 am - Bagel. Peanut butter. Coffee. Crossword puzzle. Saturday!
9:45 am - Favorite free pen out of ink on the crossword puzzle. Time to donate blood again!
11:00 am - Putting on overalls to work outside. Feel like I should change my name to Cletus.
11:01 am - The fetching ensemble is made complete with a Gumby-green t-shirt, circa 1988.
11:15 am - In front yard planting, weeding, and singing an old Bangles song. Must be the t-shirt.
11:16 am - Hope the neighbors appreciate my fashion statement. And the free concert.
11:17 am - I should start a band of middle-aged women. We could be The Hot Flashes.
1:15 pm - Back inside for iced tea and another shot at that crossword puzzle.
2:35 pm - Cleaned up & going to a matinee.
2:36 pm - Why is an afternoon movie called a matinee? Doesn't matins mean morning?
5:15 pm - Who'd have guessed "Ed Asner" and "animated feature" would ever be used together?
5:16 pm - Or that the movie thus described would require so much Kleenex?
5:40 pm - Home to fire up the grill for dinner.
6:45 pm - Burgers. Red potatoes. Asparagus. Scrabble. Saturday!

See? It's probably a good thing I won't be twittering.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

He knows my name

The past week has been an emotional roller coaster.

Between last Sunday and today:

A friend died unexpectedly.
A long-overdue check arrived.
A friend graduated from high school.
A great job prospect opened up.
A couple of friends got married.
A struggle I thought I was done with popped up again.
A client with a positive pregnancy test decided to abort.

Between weddings, funerals, graduations, birthdays that will never happen, and the dailyness of life, I'm feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland... lost, alone, laughing, crying, and never sure what's going on or what's next. Overwhelmed and utterly out of control.

I don't know how I could have handled a week like this without knowing the God who is in control, the One who orders the chaos of my life. The One who has me in the palm of His hand. The One who knows and loves me so well He even knows the number of hairs on my head.

This morning in church, we sang the simple chorus He Knows My Name. It's been lingering in my head ever since.

If you're having a week — or a year — like I am, maybe it will speak to you too.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tienanmen + 20

I'll admit I've had a hard time knowing how to react to China's involvement in the U.S. economy.

I don't pretend to be especially politically savvy, but I live in the state hit hardest by unemployment during the current economic downturn. With auto manufacturers being parted out to foreign interests, it looks like things will get worse in Michigan before they get better.

China already holds the largest share of our national debt. With GM's recent decision to sell Hummer to a Chinese company, the U.S. appears to be deepening its entanglement with a country whose human rights violations are legendary.

And speaking of human rights violations... today marks the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre.

As I battle feelings of outrage at the past and fear for the future, I struggle to remember that God is bigger – bigger than economic strife, bigger than the national debt, bigger than the U.S., bigger than China. Bigger than all of it. And bigger than my outrage and fear.

My advisor at GRTS puts it this way:

...we must not put our hope in any earthly movement or method. No protest or democracy drive or economic system can deliver the goods. Our only comfort, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, is that we belong—body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. (Full post here.)

Thanks, Mike. That was exactly the reminder I needed.