Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Parables of Jesus

One of the great privileges of our time in the States was having the opportunity to teach an adult Sunday School class at 2 of our supporting Churches. At Granada Heights Friends Church, I was able to teach on all of the Sundays in June from 10:00-10:45AM. At Morgan Hill Presbyterian Church, I was able to preach on the second Sunday morning in July and then teach the same class for 3 consecutive Thursday evenings from 7:00-8:30PM (wonderful snacks provided by my wonderful wife).

The class was called, "Jesus the Great Storyteller: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus." I proposed this topic because, for the past several years here in Ukraine, I have been preaching through Jesus' parables. I guess I've probably covered about a dozen of them, so far. During that time, I've had to do some investigatory work on parables as a Biblical literary genre and have grown ever more aware of the need to sharpen my skills in this area if I want to keep producing quality sermons on the parables. These blessed congregations gave me the stimulus to do such skill sharpening by letting me teach the class. I am more and more enamored by these powerful stories the more I study them. They are so rich in revealing realities of the Kingdom of God and so radical in the claim that they make on the lives of Jesus' followers. I'll continue studying them for years to come while still only beginning to grasp their intended meaning and call to action.

I want to thank both congregations for the opportunity to teach and I want to thank those who attended the class (60-80 at GHFC and 15-20 at MHPC). I especially thank MHPC for recording everything and making it available online. Here's a link to the sermon page. The parable sermon was delivered on July 8. And here's a link to the class, which also includes a link to a PDF download of the class notes (lesson 3 has a bibliography of recommended books on the parables). Thanks to someone at GHFC for the super-cool graphic. And thanks to the Great Storyteller Himself or leaving us with these poignant stories that continue to clarify what Kingdom living is all about.

If you choose to listen, please don't hesitate to comment. Both commendations and criticisms are welcome.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

American Aventures 2012

We're just past the half-way point of our time in the U.S. We've had an enjoyable time visiting friends, family and ministry partners in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Michigan, and in both Northern and Southern California. We've talked a lot about Ukraine and our life there, so much so that Josie and I are tired of hearing each other's stories. And even though it is a bit of a challenge to balance my ongoing field responsibilities and life here, we've made sure to work in plenty of really fun stuff as a family. Heck, after spending most of the last 5 years in post-Soviet, urban blandness, Dietrich would have been in heaven if we had never even left Baba and Papa's farm. But leave the farm we did. Here are some of the highlights of the past 2 months both on and off the farm.

One of the first tasks we gave Papa was to teach Dietrich to ride a bike. Here they are working on it the 1st week.

Here he is by the 2nd week. Thanks, Papa! No more training wheels.

On April's cool mornings, Lev was content to explore the farm. Atop the woodpile was a good place to rest.

This is, seriously, the coolest treehouse I know of. Dietrich and I plan to have some sleepovers in it when we return to Baba and Papa's in July. Thanks, again, Papa!

Enjoying a bed-time story with Baba.

Morgan Hill Presbyterian Church did an awesome Easter egg hunt between services.

Even little Lev got to join in on the action. Props to whomever hid some eggs in the planter.

Home Depot has a free kids workshop on the 1st Saturday of every month. Way to go, HoPo!

Dietrich jumps. All the time. From anything. Here he is jumping in Pennsylvania. Hi Freis.

And here he is jumping in from the play structure in our Southern California apartment complex.

We spent a few hours at the annual St. Bruno's carnival. Dietrich is finally tall enough to go on the cool stuff.

You can't do much in 5 hours at Disneyland so taking pictures was not a priority. But at least we got one that proves Josie exists.

When we get together with young families, we try to do it at a park. You know, for kids. Dietrich is amazing on monkey bars.

Not wanting to be left in the dust, Lev's started practicing whenever and wherever he gets the chance.

We all love Gormiti. Dietrich has learned that when he's not working, Grandpa Norm loves to join us at the park and have Gormiti fights until his hands bleed.

Like tree-climbing father, like tree-climbing son. Hi Godwins.

A neat little park in San Juan Capistrano had an amazingly safe rock pile/path. Here's Dietrich conquering it.

And here's Lev making sure the rocks know he means business.

At Uncle Sam and Auntie Jit's place, someone came up with the fun game of dinosaur toss. It's addictive.

Not surprisingly, even Lev got into it. That triceratops took quite a beating.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

5 Thoughts on "Love Wins"

I've decided to read some books with a family member that deal with, depending on your perspective, radical theology or potential heresy. This family member is attracted to Open Theism, particularly Clark Pinnock, and to the theological redefinitions of Rob Bell. Since it's fresh in my mind after having just read it, I'll share a number of thoughts on Love Wins, Bell's contribution to the universalist strand within Christianity. Maybe someday I'll get around to writing up my thoughts on the former, once I read the books and hash things out with this loved one.

1. So as not to be totally negative, I must say that Rob Bell, at points, paints a really clear and compelling picture of the love of God and the sacrifice of Christ in providing salvation to man in his broken, disastrous state. (Bell prefers the term "reconciliation" over "salvation," which is fine except that in standard theological parlance salvation is a broad term that encompasses many elements, e.g., redemption, adoption, union, forgiveness, and reconciliation is just one of those many terms.) He vividly describes the depth of human wickedness and then is able to talk about the power of God to rescue us out of that wickedness. Even though I read the book critically, I was moved to utter several "amens" and "hallelujahs" at different points. Bell is able to communicate well in writing and I assume he communicates equally well when he speaks. He wouldn't have the following he does if he didn't and I'm glad he uses his gifts to communicate some deep truth.

2. On the level of preference, I would do away with the one-item-per-line lists and single sentence paragraphs if I were writing the book (or editing the book, if these decisions were made by the editors). I understand that Bell needs to be hip for the young kids but, to me, it looks like he is simply trying to stretch the book length from 150 to 200 pages. Here's a one-item-per-line example from a passage where he is talking about the pervasiveness of the Kingdom of God.

So there's left and right, and up and down, and front and back.
Got that.
But there's also
in ...?
and out ...?
or around ...?
and through ...?
or between ...?
or beside ...?
or beyond ...? (p. 60)

And here are a few single-sentence paragraphs that just seem superfluous.

"Welcome to our church." (p. 96)

"Think of what you've had to eat today." (p. 130)

"We believe all sorts of things about ourselves." (p. 171)

A book, most of the time, is not a visual art project. An author uses his literary capabilities to convey information as compellingly as possible for his intended audience in relation to the subject matter. The reason why I stated in the first point that Bell is a good communicator was so that there would be some weight behind the statement that Bell should let his solid ability to communicate in print stand on its own. Trying to modernize the text with odd spacing draws attention away from the power of what is communicated rather than heightening the reader's awareness of it. Again, this is a cosmetic criticism and is the least of my worries. I simply would be thinking less negatively of the book had he not tried to visually convey his tone to me.

3. Much more disturbing is how Bell conveys the scorecard between the the traditional understanding of hell as unending, conscious torment and the ultimate salvation of all humans. 3 of his ideas are equally problematic.

First, Bell writes as though those who believe in the traditional understanding consider it the most important Christian doctrine and that it's the main thing they preach. I know that there are Churches that overemphasize the doctrine of hell and believers who hang hell over the heads of the unbelievers they know in disturbing fashion. It's not a matter of fact but a matter of degree. But Bell doesn't leave much room for someone to believe in a traditional hell and not be out-of-balance about it. Surely, if the traditional doctrine is true, it ought to be a big deal, even if not the only deal. And surely, there are many "traditionalists" who don't go overboard with it. Not so, according to Bell.

Second, Bell would have us think that universalism is a sort of silent majority in the history of the Church. The traditionalists of today are far outweighed by, "an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years," (p. 108) ... who stand "at the center of the Christian tradition ... who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins." (p. 109) One problem is that Bell doesn't give us enough reason to trust his telling of history. Clearly, mentioning 6 people and a few contested interpretations of Scripture is not sufficient to make the case for universalism. It's much too broad an issue for that. Another problem is his reference to "the center of the Christian tradition." Does the universalist's proximity to or distance from the so-called "center" either give his position more weight or hurt the traditionalist argument? Basing a theological position on who has and hasn't held it is one of the weakest ways to make a case when the topic is as complex as this one. And, even if it was a legitimate approach, Bell's calculation seems a bit inflated.

Third, Bell simply does not do justice to the Biblical case for hell as unending, conscious torment. True, his work is not a biblical studies monograph on the issue, and I don't fault him for exegetically dissecting each passage. But to put a spin on a cross-section of relevant passages and call it a day is insufficient and irresponsible. Unless I'm mistaken, he doesn't even deal with the lake of fire references in Revelation 20. That's unacceptable if you are going to say that the traditional understanding of hell should be abandoned.

4. Along similar lines, I think that there is good reason to criticize Bell's handling of other passages of Scripture, as well. 2 instances reveal a questionable hermeneutic.

First, Bell puts together a string of Old Testament prophecies (pages 85-88) that talk about the restoration of Israel after a time of judgment. With no rationale provided, he then states that these passages lay the groundwork for understanding that the purpose of all judgment is restoration and that we can expect everyone to be restored. Clearly, God has a unique relationship with Israel. Clearly, most of the promises that Bell cites about both judgment and restoration relate to Israel. It just won't do to take those specific references and expand them to be inclusive of all peoples with little more than mere turns of phrase, "failure ... isn't final, judgement has a point, and consequences are for correction." (p. 88)

Second, Bell violates just about every rule in the book when he bases his redefinition of both Heaven and hell on the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus told parables to communicate certain concrete truths or to invite radical life change and there are plenty of books out these days to help us figure out just what Jesus was getting at (see this one and this one and this one). It's now pretty decided that parables aren't so flexible that we can make them fit whatever topics we happen to be interested in. Jesus wants us to know that those who have wandered away from the Father are not beyond the reach of forgiveness; He wants us to know that the love of the Father is deeper than we can imagine; and He wants us to know that there is a severe danger in religious formalism/elitism. Those are the 3 main points of that particular parable. Bell posits that to live in the new reality that the prodigal son lives in is truly Heaven and that to live in the reality of the older brother is truly hell. What Jesus was really trying to do, according to Bell, was to get us to stop thinking about Heaven and hell as we've traditionally thought of them and to instead think of them as realities that we choose today based on whether we consider ourselves like the father considers the younger son (Heaven) or like the older son considers himself (hell). Parables need to be treated with more literary respect than this.

5. In all of the caricatures of and rebuttals to the traditionalist version of hell that Bell gives, he never addresses the very best argument for it. It's an argument that has been around for a long time and that demands an answer. If a successful case can be made for universalism, it can't just state that God gets what God wants and then quote the verses that reveal God's desire for all to be saved. The universalist has to deal with God's infinite, unassailable holiness. A finite sin has infinite consequence when committed against an infinitely holy Being. God is the primary Being against Whom we sin and it is His infinite holiness that we violate. The consequence, logically, is infinite and eternal punishment. Rather than restate the standard line of how "unjust" it would be for God to punish people infinitely for finite sins and assume that the human discomfort caused by the notion points to it's falsity, Bell should have at least tried to advance universalism by dealing with the logical and theological dimensions of God's holiness and infinitude. God's love is ontologically equal to God's justice and His mercy flowing from the former is ontologically equal to His wrath flowing from the latter. Appeals to human emotions have won converts to universalism but rigorous and realistic intellectual work needs to be done if universalism is to win the day theologically and philosophically. Bell chose not to do this work.

I want to reiterate that I think Bell has done a good job making some compelling points about the love of God, the depravity of man and the power of Christ to restore the sinner to a right relationship with God. But my criticisms of Love Wins, the criticisms of others of the book and the broader criticisms of others of universalism, should give pause to a full embrace of Bell's redefinitions. For an in-depth study of hell as eternal, conscious torment that deals with many of the questions that Bell avoids, check out Hell Under Fire. Hell is real and its reality is terrifying. May we all understand it enough to know how to warn others of it and to invite them to the fear-free, hell-less life that can be found in union with the One Who has overcome hell, Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Our Own Backyard

Over a year ago, when walking through the "forest" that's about a 10-minute walk from our house (Парк партизанской славы), we stumbled on a very cool-looking ropes course set up among the trees. It was closed at the time and we only really noticed the stuff that was pretty high up in the air. It was too much for lil' D then, so I didn't really give it a second thought.

Last month, Josie stumbled upon it again and recommended that I take D. I did a few weeks ago and, man, was it a hit! I guess we shouldn't be surprised. Dietrich has an acute love for the adventurous that borders on dangerous. I think our biggest problem is that he's at least a dozen centimeters—how's that for mixing categories?—away from advancing to the next level. He's already asking when he can go higher.

Here are some highlights of that first visit. (Here's the main page for the Seiklar website with You Tube videos at the bottom. Most of the videos are from a different park than the one we go to. Here's the photo gallery page. Most of the photos are from the park we go to.)

Dietrich's having-fun face.

Dietrich's in-the-zone face.

He didn't fall much, but this part of the course and this situation, in particular,
led to the most slip ups. Even when you're only 3 feet off the ground,
the safety of the harness is necessary for kiddos.

More serious action.

Sometimes D tried to simplify things by large steps and
leaps over the more difficult nuances.

This is one of the few times in the net bridge where he didn't lay down and
pretend to sleep. All the kids did it. Must be a 21st-century thing.

Figuring out the carabiner.

This shot shows both D trying to walk the plank without holding on and
the high level platforms in the background.
Daddy's pretty excited to try out the big kid stuff with D in a few years.

This shot shows D's internal struggle. "What I'm doing is totally cool,
but I can't wait to take on that supah-high stuff."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The GOP and Me

I've been much less involved in politics while living overseas these last 7 years but, of course, with a presidential election coming up, I'm paying a good bit of attention. It turns out that we'll be in California for the 2012 presidential primaries so I've been watching the major debates, trying to keep up to speed. Let me just say that, as a connoisseur of philosophical and religious debates, party nomination debates leave much to be desired. I think I better start doing more reading and leave the media circus that is political debate behind. I finish watching each debate more flustered than I was before. In spite of the frustrations, I feel like I know each candidate well enough to say whether or not I think they would be a good person to consider voting for as GOP presidential nominee.

Acceptable Candidates

Rick Santorum - I'm likely voting for Santorum. Most of the candidates, as well as the media, have focused the discussion thus far on the economy. I'm more concerned about social and cultural issues than economics and the candidate who tries to talk about these things most often, and most conservatively, is Santorum. Unfortunately, he's probably too conservative to get elected. But the primaries are about voting your conscience so, Santorum's my guy.

Newt Gingrich - No candidate is more pleasant to listen to than Newt. He's clearly the most intelligent guy on the stage and he's one of the few who doesn't blurt out slogans and catchphrases at every turn. I liked Newt as the Speaker of the House and I'd like him as president. It's a genuine shame that a guy this politically talented has such a train wreck of a moral life. Besides that, no one thinks he's electable.

Possibly Acceptable Candidates

Mitt Romney - Over the course of the last few weeks, as this post was percolating, I had Romney in the "Acceptable Candidates" list. He is debating well and does not make me wince. A huge plus for him is that most everyone agrees that he is electable. However, I've always feared that, if Romney was the nominee, it wouldn't take long before the anti-conservatives would begin to criticize the religious, philosophical, historical and scientific mess that is the Mormon worldview. With that criticism being raised at the primary level among conservatives, I fear that Romney won't hold up as a viable candidate. I hope I'm wrong because he probably is the candidate most likely to defeat Obama.

Herman Cain - I like Herman Cain and think that he would bring good business sense to the White House. Unfortunately, America is not a business and needs more than a good businessman at the helm. He says very little about social and cultural issues and the media hardly asks him any questions in this regard. He might be a good candidate for president, if we had more information.

Absolutely Unacceptable Candidates

Ron Paul - Seriously. If you can't answer a question without getting mad about U.S. military involvement overseas and if the answer to every question posed to you is, "we need to stop fighting all these wars," then you do not have what it takes to be president.

Rick Perry - I voted for President George W. Bush twice and, while I don't regret that, I do wish that he didn't come across as so unintelligent. Rick Perry, as far as I can tell, is actually as unintelligent as President Bush is accused of being. When he takes notes while a question is being asked, I don't think there is anyone who believes he is able to hear the question and write something down at the same time. His consistent lack of coherent answers substantiates the concern. I know some people from Texas and they are more than happy to sit this election cycle out. I hope their wishes are fulfilled.

Jon Huntsman - Huntsman is simply trying too hard. As former Ambassador to China, we are thankful and impressed that you are fluent in Mandarin. But stop telling us that; it makes you seem haughty. Also, I'm Gen X and I like Nirvana. But please don't force Nirvana references into your talking points; I'm not impressed and I don't want Kurt Cobain influencing U.S. politics in any way. While Santorum is, unfortunately, too conservative to get the nomination, Huntsman is, fortunately, too liberal to get the nomination.

Gary Johnson - This guy just showed up at the last debate. He spoke about 3 times. He tried to make his candidacy appealing by saying that, as Governor of New Mexico, he vetoed more bills than any other state and, arguably, more than all of the other states combined. I'm sorry, all that does is make me sad for New Mexico. No one can get anything done there because veto-happy Johnson can't get along with anyone.

Michele Bachmann - Whereas Romney was on my "Acceptable Candidates" list and dropped to "Possibly Acceptable Candidates," Michele Bachmann used to be on my "Possibly Acceptable Candidates" list and is now on the "Absolutely Unacceptable Candidates" list. Ron Paul's answer to everything is, "no more foreign wars," Bachmann's answer is either, "I was the first/only/strongest opponent of that bill," "No one has fought/lobbied against/spoken out about this issue more than I," or "I will not stop/rest/be silent until issue x/y/z is repealed/solved/changed." The easy response to this type of argument, which has been successfully utilized over and over by the other candidates, is to state that almost every one of the things Bachmann opposed was actually enacted in the end. That lack of success is surely part of the reason why she is not the frontrunner she used to be.

At the end of the day, no matter how disappointed I may be by the results of this process, I agree with the sentiments of John Mark Reynolds that we're looking for someone who can lead our country well for 4 to 8 years, not someone who will establish a conservative utopia. That takes a lot of the pressure off as we wait to see who gets to run against Obama next November.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Our Crazy, Cross-Cultural Kid

Dietrich is doing some amazing stuff linguistically as he continues to adjust to a 3-language environment (English, Russian and Ukrainian). Here are some of the funniest.

1. Он меня обидел (Ohn menya obeedel)
"He offended/insulted me" or "He hurt my feelings." The verb is pretty flexible in Russian but I don't think it's as flexible as it is when Dietrich uses it. When you ask Dietrich about his day, he usually talks about whether or not anyone at school did anything bad. Vlad took away Dima's toy. Vlad pushed Nastya down. Vlad threw sand at Sasha. (There are 2 Vlads in Dietrich's class and one or the other of them is the cause of 90% of the problems. We expect that these Vlads aren't the villains they seem to be on Dietrich's telling.) Now, when we're at home, we let Dietrich tell us about these things in English. But when we're on the street, we ask Dietrich to speak quietly, if he's speaking in English, or to speak in Russian. He'll often choose to speak in Russian about these things when we're out and about. He loves to start every account with the phrase, "So-and-so offended/insulted/hurt the feelings of so-and-so." After we ask for clarification he goes on to tell us the details. It's not often something were the verb "to offend," "to insult" or even "to hurt one's feelings" seems to be the best choice. When taking a way a toy, pushing someone down and throwing sand are all lumped together into the word "обидел," it's a sign that either everyone in his class is more concerned about being offended than anything else or that we need to help him expand his vocabulary a bit in this area. But I wouldn't want to offend him by proposing that. We'll just work on it in subtle ways.

2. Excessive punishment
One of the more troublesome stories that Dietrich told a few weeks ago was about a boy who, for starters, took off his slipper (slippers here have pretty hard soles) and hit another boy above the eye with it. The hitter then struck the same boy with his fist in the same spot above the eye. And just to make sure the job was done, he picked up the slipper and threw it at the same boy and hit him in the same spot. One of those actions caused the victim to start bleeding. Horrible, shocking story. We followed up by asking if the boy was punished/disciplined in any way (there is only one Russian word for punishment/discipline, which makes the theological distinction a bit tricky, but that's a topic for another post). Dietrich said that he was not allowed to come back to school. We asked how long he had to stay away from school. Dietrich told us that he had to stay away for 40 years! While feeling very sorry for the poor boy who had been stuck so many times, we had a lot of fun imagining a 5-year-old who, after being banned from school for 40 years, finally gets to go back to kindergarten at age 45. Sounds like the plot of an Adam Sandler movie. Since the aggressor is back at school, we assume that Dietrich misunderstood something. That makes guessing why D came up with the 40-year punishment all the more fun.

3. Why stop at 3?
On weekday afternoons, Dietrich is allowed to watch 30-minutes of something educational. Only on the weekends is he allowed to watch a feature-length cartoon. At some point, in order to help his Russian/Ukrainian language acquisition, we decided that he could watch 30 minutes of a feature-length cartoon during the week, if he watched it in Russian or Ukrainian. He doesn't choose that often but I've come home to him watching, Cars, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2 or 3 in Russian or Ukrainian, only later to hear him playing with toys and using words, phrases and sentences in one of those languages mixed in with his English. Success. Until a few weeks ago. We borrowed Aladdin from some other missionaries and I, jokingly, told him that I was going to play it in Polish (region 5 DVDs come dubbed into a number of Eastern European languages). After answering his question, "what's Polish?" I played it in English and didn't give the conversation a second thought. The following weekend I had been out somewhere and came home while Dietrich was watching Aladdin. I was, as usual, trying to tune it out, but something wasn't right. I listened and couldn't understand a thing. Dietrich's obvious and nonchalant answer to my puzzled inquiry about what language he was watching the movie in has had me baffled to this day. I'd say he watched Aladdin, in Polish, all the way through, about 6-7 times. Masochist or future linguist? You make the call.

We love our little guy and are very thankful to God for how well he is doing with the confusing and complicated MK life he is leading. These and many other moments like them simultaneously lighten the mood and keep us grounded in reality.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How Not To Do Missions

A particular Central Asian country with a religious population made up, primarily, of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, constitutionally allows Protestant and Evangelical Churches to register with the government and operate free of charge. No fees and no taxes are to be levied. Corrupt government officials, however, demand bribes from these Churches for registration, as well as other rights and privileges. With little money and high moral standards, the indigenous Evangelical Church refuses to pay the bribes, trying to influence the government to follow the constitution and allow the Church to do what they have every political right to do, i.e., to register and operate freely.

A particular missions-minded, non-Central-Asian Evangelical Church is doing Church planting in the aforementioned Central Asian country. These missionary Church planters are paying the unconstitutional bribes demanded by the corrupt government officials as they organize and operate new Churches. The corrupt government officials now believe that the Evangelical Church is able to pay a bribe and will, eventually, violate their moral standards and do so. The indigenous Church leaders are told that the missionary Church planters are paying the bribe and so they can/should/must, as well. The actions of the non-Central Asian missionaries are having a hugely negative political impact on the indigenous believers, resulting in even more hardships than those they already have to bear.