Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

I hope that you are all enjoying the wonder of Christmas and are able to reflect on the glory and depth of the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, our God took on flesh for us and our salvation. Amazing.

For those of you with a more modern ear, I'd like to recommend Sufjan Stevens' "Songs for Christmas" CD set.

Sufjan presents some of his own original Christmas music, which is phenomenal (here's a sample), but he excels in taking many traditional Christian Christmas songs and re-presenting them in new, yea glorious, arrangements. I wasn't able to find many links to these Christmas songs (here's his wonderful rendition of "O Come O Come Emmanuel"), but you'll get a general overview of his style from his renditions of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (sorry for the cheesy video accompaniment) and "Amazing Grace."

It's already Christmas and you may not want to buy a Christmas album now but, trust me, it's worth it and you will listen to it all year 'round. Merry Christmas to all of you, whether Sufjan is a part of it or not.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Please, Let Them Be There

I know that life in the Millennial Kingdom will be radically different and indescribably greater than it is now.

And I know that the subsequent New Heavens and the New Earth will be utterly different and infinitely greater still.

But one of the few things that I really hope remains a constant from this life to the next are …

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Beautiful, If Non-Traditional, Advent Moment

Our Church in Ukraine has, in the past, discussed acknowledging Advent, but has never followed though once that 4th Sunday before Christmas rolls around. Partly, it’s due to a lack of personnel; the inevitable absence of the majority of our leaders around the holidays makes doing anything out of the ordinary quite difficult. Partly, it's due to the simplistic nature of our services; they're always the same and they've never included Advent before, so it's hard to veer into the new now. All that to say, it's been a while since we've been around a Church that celebrates Advent and puts full focus on the Incarnation for a solid month. I've been anticipating this season for a while.

Our NorCal Church is Morgan Hill Presbyterian, and we love It dearly. They've been very welcoming to us since our return 2 months ago and have given us lots of opportunities to be involved in the life of the Church. And, being Presbyterian, they are fully immersed in the Advent tradition, so Sunday was a great start to what will be a great month worshipping our God in response to the gift of His Son. The highlight was the choir's rendition of Of the Father's Love Begotten, one of my most beloved Christian hymns. But we also sang a song entitled, The Love of God, which didn't seem particularly "Adventy" and which I had never heard before. In the middle of the second verse, I found myself wondering, "Why are we singing this when there are so many better and Adventier songs to sing?" When we hit the last verse, I stopped caring. It is so beautiful, capturing both the immensity of God's love and our complete inability to comprehend it's depth that it could have been sung to the tune of a Beatles song and I would have been overcome by it's simple profundity. So, as this Advent season begins, I wish you God's peace and a fresh perspective on God's love from the following words …

Could we with ink the ocean fill and were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, tho' stretched from sky to sky.
O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure — The saints' and angels' song.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

When You're On, You're On

On the recommendation of a family member, I recently read Michael Yaconelli's little book, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith. I didn't know quite what to expect. On the one hand, I remember the days when I used to get The Door and the anticipation with which I would read Yaconelli's Back Door columns. They were the most serious pages of a highly non-serious magazine and he could cause you to laugh and think at the same time. On the other hand, I wouldn't have pegged Yaconelli as one who could write a full-length book — he always seemed just a tad too scattered and disconnected to be able to pull that off well. Additionally, the family member who recommended the book has one major theme around which most of what he thinks and reads revolves. In brief, it goes like this: "I love Jesus, but I hate the Church." This sentiment doesn't sit well with me and the increasing frequency with which I am reading and hearing it troubles me. I knew that Yaconelli had to hit on this theme for the book to be on this particular family member's recommendation list. So, with a mixture of expectancy and trepidation, I opened the book.

A glance at the table of contents reveals that some of my concerns were valid. Yaconelli was trying to get the reader's attention with shocking chapter headings and bold statements about what it really means to live a life of faith. Here are the titles, see if you can notice a pattern: dangerous wonder, risky curiosity, wild abandon, daring playfulness, wide-eyed listening, irresponsible passion, happy terror, naïve grace, childlike faith. He seems to have gotten a year's worth of use out of his thesaurus in just coming up with those! And the chapter contents themselves are filled with similarly exaggerated and superfluous statements that don't hold up well under Biblical or theological scrutiny. But, since he likely wasn't writing this as research for a Ph.D. dissertation, I won't fault him too much.

But I do want to credit Yaconelli with hitting the nail on the head with one vitally important point. In context, he is discussing the Gospel of Luke, chapter 7, and John the Baptist's lack of certainty about whether Jesus is really the Promised One that the people of God were supposed to be waiting for. After all of the groundwork that John and his disciples had laid, Jesus' ministry sure seemed to be harvesting mixed fruit. So, with pressure mounting and public opinion turning against this new Jesus movement, he sent some of his own to ask this supposed Messiah what in the world was going on. Here's Yaconelli's brief paraphrase of Jesus' words to a worried John:

"The Jesus who can rescue you is the One you can trust even when you're not rescued." (p. 118)

What a simple but powerfully poignant way to put it! John was eventually imprisoned and beheaded, but he had to trust Jesus anyway. Likewise, Jesus may not rescue us in the ways we think that we ought to be rescued. This doesn't mean that He can't, just that He has a good reason not to. And we have to trust that His reasons not to rescue are better than our reasons for His rescue. I read these words on the way to the hospital the day before Andrei Elijah's birth. I haven’t forgotten them, they are deeply meaningful and they will likely prove to be so whenever me, or a member of my family, faces the darker side of life in this fallen world.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ukrainian Evangelicalism in the Spotlight

For anyone interested in a perspective other than our own about how the Church is doing in Ukraine and Kyiv Theological Seminary's role in the Evangelical movement in Eurasia, read this recent Christianity Today article. On the whole, I find it a positive reflection of what we're seeing God do, even though I would squabble with the author over a few of the details. I don't buy the "all press is good press" line, but this press is certainly good for KTS and the Ukrainian Body of Christ.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Follow-up on Preston

Since I'm still mulling over the interaction contained to the book alluded to in the previous post, I decided to look over Preston Jones' curriculum vitae. I noticed that he has a few articles in First Things and, being a FT disciple, I checked them out. One looked particularly interesting, so I read it. You should too. It is a response to the oft-advanced criticism that evangelicalism has a shoddy and underdeveloped intellectual life. While affirming that evangelicals need to engage academia with integrity and to pursue a robust life of the mind, Jones says that we shouldn't demonize our evangelical brothers and sisters who may not yet be on the bandwagon. In short, we should be charitable to our fellow evangelicals as we all strive, to varying degrees, to love our Lord with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. Thanks for the good reminder, Preston.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Same Questions Through Different Lenses

I'm not all that smart, but I do read stuff written by very smart people. So, when I come across something that is really good and that can make the complex understandable, I try to let people know about it. I assume that mostly family and friends are reading my blog so, those are the people I have in mind when I recommend stuff. That is not necessarily what I am doing with this post.

I just read a book that I think the smart people ought to read. It should prove to be a rousing read for just about anyone but, for the academics, it provides insight that we (and I am using the "we" very loosely) need to be aware of and interact with.

The book is titled, Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism and Christianity, edited by Preston Jones. It contains about 2 years' worth of email correspondence between Jones, a believing history professor in Arkansas and Greg Graffin, lead singer of Bad Religion, who holds a Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell. Jones really likes Bad Religion's music and, considering himself a little rebellious within the Christian subculture, decided to engage Graffin in dialogue regarding God and Christianity, science and religion, faith and philosophy, etc.

The discussion is fascinating because, while both hold Ph.D.s and are therefore academics, Jones is not part of the swelling evangelical-philosophical tidal wave of the last 20 years and Graffin, being primarily a punk and not an academic, has not engaged much in the formal academic advance of naturalism. This, and the fact that the dialogue takes place via email and not in a lecture hall, means that all of their thinking is outside of the traditional categories. A huge bonus is that Jones went back and added comments, quotes, notes and study and reflection questions that would make the book useful in a variety of settings, not just for a stimulating read.

But the reason I think the academics should read this book is because it reveals how a dyed-in-the-wool naturalist — particularly one who hasn't engaged with any research of the aforementioned tidal wave — thinks about religion generally and Christianity specifically. There is a certain predictability to the standard debates between the evangelical masterminds and the naturalist and Gnostic gurus of the day. That predictability is not bad but it leaves certain key issues out of the discussion. But in this conversation we get the nitty-gritty. It should cause evangelical academics to assess how they present their material and consider how to better utilize the material they regularly use. So, if you're an academic, and accidentally reading this post, buy this book and think about how you'd answer a punk rocker with a Ph.D.

A few years ago I began compiling an annotated bibliography of Christian apologetic material. Below is the entry for Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?

Preston Jones, ed., Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism and Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006).

In this dialogue between historian, Preston Jones, and Bad Religion lead singer and Ph.D. in zoology, Greg Graffin, the reader will find the raw and real interaction of apologetics, rather than the prepared and formal stuff of academic debates. This has its positives and negatives. Negatively, since neither Preston nor Graffin have formal training in theology, philosophy or religion in general, many of the spoken and unspoken ground rules for this type of discussion are completely ignored. This means that questions raised are not addressed and fallacies committed are not confronted. It is clear that Graffin has no training in philosophy or theology, yet he speaks authoritatively of their shortcomings, failing to realize that most of what he says has no basis in the science, of which he is an expert, but is founded upon a philosophy of science which stands behind everything he says. Needless to say, his philosophy of science — a strong scientism claiming that the empirical method is the only way to have genuine knowledge — does not stand up to rational scrutiny and has been effectively criticized by J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig and others. Jones, also due to his lack of theological/apologetic training, misses key opportunities to address Graffin's questions and criticisms of Christianity of which someone familiar to such a discussion would take advantage. Positively, however, because they are expert academics in their fields and very intelligent men in general, Jones and Graffin carry on a very stimulating conversation, it is engaging and interesting on every level. It is amazing that Graffin and Jones were able to carry out such a dialogue for so long via email and that such a haphazard style of communication lends itself to such a good book. In the end both faiths, Christianity and naturalism, are given a fair hearing in a way that will enlighten the reader to new insights regarding how apologetics works (and sometimes doesn't work) in today's world.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Good Word on God's Will

Our good friends, Eric & Shelly, loaned us with high recommendation, The Jesus of Suburbia: Have We Tamed the Son of God to Fit Our Lifestyle? by Mike Erre. They sent us their copy just days after we arrived from Ukraine (with lots of other things for Dietrich and Josie, of course). With all of the other books that I brought home to read and study, I wasn't sure when, or even if, I was going to get to it. But I picked it up yesterday and haven't been able to put it down. I should be done by the close of the weekend. It's very readable but, at the same time, a strong challenge to some of our 21st century Western conceptions of Jesus and Christianity. It helps immensely to have had Mike as a classmate in seminary and to have seen his dynamic oratory style. Images of him preaching the text make it much more alive than it would otherwise be. In any case, the book confronts our culture with the cost of true discipleship and challenges people to put their faith in the Biblical Jesus, not in the mass-marketed, feel-good, meet-my-needs Jesus so prevalent today.

In chapter 2, there is a section about God's will. I think many Christians (including myself for a good stint of my adulthood), at some point, feel the anxiety of whether or not they are doing God's will, stress over how best to know God's will or fear what will happen if they do something outside of God's will. A deep trust in God's sovereignty and several attentive reads through Scripture should help relieve most of these anxieties, stresses and fears. That, and keeping in mind these words from Mike …

"God is more committed to having you walk in his will than you are … Pharaohs stood against God and failed; Nazis and communists have tried to stamp out God's movement and succeeded only in spreading it farther; Caesars and Herods have shaken their fists at God, but no one has ever been able to stop the purposes of God in history. Why then, if we believe God to be that powerful, do we think we can so easily miss doing his will? God is so good, so sovereign, and so caring that he will reveal his will to us if our hearts are open. There are no magic formulas to this, no seven-step lists to memorize, no guaranteed incantations. There is just the simple trust that God will lead us where he wants us to go and we cannot miss it if we simply keep our eyes open." (p. 30-31)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Just to Wrap Things Up

For the 4th straight postseason appearance, the Angels have been embarrassing to watch. We've been demolished by the opposition — 3 of the 4 times by the Red Sox, hence the hatred — making commentators and critics talk about how much of a fluke it is that we were even in the playoffs. Our lineup and offensive approach get criticized, Mike Scioscia gets labeled an imbecile and Vladimir Guerrero goes home without a World Series ring. It's all very sad, especially when you're coming off the winningest season the Angel franchise has ever known. But, given the events of the previous post, this season's end isn't all that painful; my focus has been understandably elsewhere. I'm only now starting to sit down to watch the game with interest. Needless to say, I'm presently a raging fan of the Rays and yesterday's 9 to 1 victory over the Sox was delightful. Hail Tampa Bay! Of course, I'm already counting the days to next April and am hoping for a great start to the 2009 season for my beloved Halos. I must say, as frustrating as our postseason play has been since 2002, I prefer it to the postseasonlessness of my late 20th century Angels. Dashed hopes are better than no hope at all, in baseball life, at least.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Infinitely Greater Degrees of Everything

It’s not yet been a month and it seems like we’ve been through a year’s worth of experience. On September 16, we found out that the precious little baby that we were expecting, then 20 weeks old, had a 50 percent chance of having Trisomy 18, an almost always fatal genetic disorder. After an ultrasound and consultation with doctors and specialists, we decided to take our home service early and come to the States on September 27. It was discouraging to think about not being in Kyiv for the rest of the semester. I would miss meeting the new students for this year, miss two Talbot-Kyiv Extension sessions and would have to give my Theology IV class (covering pneumatology, ecclesiology and eschatology) to another colleague to teach. But being present for and participating in those things was not worth the prospect of miscarrying the baby in Ukraine and not being around family, friends and our own culture, were such a thing to happen. Heading home was a much easier decision to make than I expected it to be.

But then, on September 25, we went in for one last Ukrainian ultrasound for no other reason than to see the baby one more time before heading to the States. Our hearts were crushed to see our little baby motionless and without that wonderfully fast-paced and ever-so-comforting baby heartbeat. Exactly what we had been hoping and praying against had happened. Our baby had died and we had to deliver him in a Ukrainian hospital that didn’t have an adequate translator and that was thousands of miles from those with whom we would most want to be during a tragic time like this.

We cancelled our return tickets and got Josie settled into the hospital to start the birthing process. The days were long and tiring, especially the ones where I took Dietrich on a 3-4 hour roundtrip ride to see his mommy. God’s greatest blessing during this time was the presence of dear friends Jon and Andrea and their daughter, Joy, who happened to be headed to Kyiv when we heard the news. They graciously extended their stay by 5 days in order to care for Dietrich while I was with Josie in the hospital. (In Dietrich-speak they are now affectionately referred to as Dzat, Anana and Bwueah.) With the exception of the night that Josie gave birth, I made sure I was home in time to put Dietrich to bed, and I slept near him to make sure he was still able to get some dad time during the hard days without mom. It was so hard to lay down at night with Dietrich, knowing that Josie was on the other side of the city, grieving alone.

Then came the life-altering night of Andrei Elijah’s birth. When we went to bed Monday night, Josie’s contractions kept her from actually falling asleep, but I was out like a light. I was startled awake by Josie calling my name. The baby was coming and, being so small, he came very quickly, at about 1:00 AM on September 30. There were some necessary follow-up procedures that took place, followed by 30 of the most bittersweet minutes of mine on this earth. We spent these moments with little Andrei in tears and pain, but cherishing every one as they would be our only time physically and tangibly with him. Every part of him was so small and so full of possibility, but the life was gone. His little arms and littler hands, little legs and littler feet, and his beautiful, beautiful eyes had moved all they were going to. It was painful to give him back to the nurse, knowing that we wouldn’t see him again and knowing that our only memories of Andrei outside the womb would be those we had just had. Heart-wrenching, indeed. We said good-bye to our precious second son, called each of our parents to tell them what had happened and then cried ourselves to sleep at about 3:30 AM.

The days since Andrei’s birth have been indescribable, but I’ll do my best. We finally did wrap things up in Kyiv and made it back to the States on October 5. We’ve enjoyed setting up our temporary home in a trailer on Josie’s parents’ property and especially watching Dietrich have fun on the farm with goats, sheep, cows, Rosie the family dog and, of course, Baba and Papa Miller. He goes to bed exhausted from very active and fun-filled days. But then there are the things that remind us of Andrei, things that make immediately present the pain and loss. Some of these are expected, like when we sit down at the end of the day and look at the pictures that we have of him. Others come out of nowhere and blindside us. While driving home from the airport last Sunday night, the song “You Are My Sunshine” came on and everyone but me started to sing it in an attempt to keep Dietrich awake until we got home. For some reason, I burst into tears thinking about the sentiment of that song’s chorus in relation to sweet Andrei. Now I can’t even think about that song without tearing up. It’s too bad we sing it to Dietrich all the time.

So, we’ve experienced an excruciating month, however, our God has proven Himself close to comfort and ever faithful as we mourn the loss of Andrei. I’ve noticed 4 areas in particular where I’m recognizing, feeling and experiencing things that I’ve never recognized, felt or experienced before, at least not to this degree. Each of them comes from the Lord’s good Hand and it would be improper of me to mention the pain of our experience and not God’s provision in the midst of it all. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Pain of Death
This is an obvious one, but, until Andrei, I had not lost anyone really close to me in such a sudden manner. Cancer and old age have taken many a loved one, but they haven’t come as shockingly in my family as Andrei’s death has to me. Those first days when his death was only a possibility, I held out hope. We have an all-powerful, all-good God, and I had no doubt that He was in sovereign control of our baby. And I didn’t want to grieve without reason, so I prayed and waited expectantly. The Biblical teaching on prayer gave me no other option. Seeing him lifeless on the ultrasound hit me like a ton of bricks. Holding him after he was born hit me like a megaton. There was almost a physical pain that accompanied the emotional pain as we sat there holding a little boy who should be alive and still developing in his mother’s womb. The pain of death is tangibly real to me now.

Hatred of Sin
Sin is the ultimate reason for Andrei’s death. Not my sin or Josie’s sin in particular, but sin in general. We live in a sin-marred, pain-ridden world where dysfunction, death and decay should either not exist, or should not plague humanity the way they do (depending on your creation perspective). God’s handiwork longs for the day when things like genetic disorders will be eradicated and the world will function as it was originally designed (this is at the core of our millennial hope). That sin has manifested itself in taking the life of our son, and I hope to never think of sin in the same way again. As a result of creation’s rebellion against God, our world is cursed. And while God’s grace, salvation in Christ and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence allow us to fight against the curse in many ways, we still participate in death-causing rebellion every time we sin. The death of my son will be an ever-present reminder of how serious sin is and will stimulate and strengthen me in the moment-by-moment struggle against it.

Love for Family
As hard as it was to hold Andrei’s lifeless body in my hands, Josie held him inside her. For about 20 weeks she carried him as he grew and developed and was able to feel the first few kicks before he died. I will never know what this is like, but I do know that Josie has a connection with Andrei that I don’t, and that the pain is real to her in a dramatically different way than it is to me. To see her love and concern for Andrei deepens my love for her. The pain of losing him makes her presence that much more precious to me.

And then there is Dietrich. In the presence of a baby who has died, the life of a healthy baby takes on a whole new meaning. Every petty display of my impatience or frustration with Dietrich sickens me now that I have a sense of what life could be like without him. His every move and every word take on a whole new quality and character as manifestations of real life. And very few things are as hard as telling Dietrich how sorry I am about his brother’s death. Josie and I are not the only ones deprived of Andrei; Dietrich has lost someone too, even if he doesn’t yet comprehend it. Oh, how I love my wonderful little boy.

Trust in God
Finally, I am forced by this experience to bow, broken and humbled, before by my all-wise and all-controlling God, my only source of stability in the midst of such heartache. Only He can or will know why Andrei died and, because He is God and I am just a man, that has to be OK with me. And it is OK with me. My faith has been and will be tested as we struggle through the loss of Andrei but, at this point, I can say that God has proven Himself more trustworthy and poured out His lovingkindness on us more lavishly, not less, in the last month. I don’t question and am not angry about God’s decision to allow Andrei’s death. That doesn’t make the pain any less, but it does mean that, at the end of the day, I can say, as my wife did here, “It is well with my soul.” God is faithful, and this is especially important to believe when things are bad. I’m thankful that He is proving Himself such to us at this time.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

And Boy, How It's Lasted!

Since my last post the Angels have continued to play outstanding baseball. They clinched the AL West many days ago. Frankie Rodriguez broke the all time saves record for a single season. And our offense picked up just as our pitching started to cool down. (I know that giving Frankie so many save opportunities means that we are not blowing other teams away offensively, but I'm content to celebrate the achievement and enjoy the excitement of close games while turning a blind eye to that criticism.) Of course, all of this is overshadowed by some disheartening news that will come to you shortly. But, in those moments when a positive distraction is in order, the Angels continue to provide. Here's to a great, Yankee-less post season!

Friday, August 1, 2008

On Enjoying It While It Lasts

This could end anytime, so I better get all the mileage out of it that I can ...

-The Angels have won 8 of their last 10 games.
-The Angels swept the Red Sox, outscoring them 22-9.
-The Angels opened a 4-game series against the Yankees by beating them 12-6.
-The Angels have the best record in baseball.
-The Angels lead the AL West by more games than all other division leaders combined.

-Garrett Anderson got 4 hits in each of the last 2 games.
-John Lackey got within 2 outs of no-hitting the Red Sox.
-Torii Hunter hit a 3-run home run against the Yankees last night.
-Juan Rivera hit a 3-run home run against the Yankees last night.
-Vladimir Guerrero hit a 3-run home run against the Yankees last night.

Sure, I'm really upset that we traded Casey Kotchman for Mark Teixeira. Kotchman is playing great baseball right now and really fits the Angels' persona. The fact that Garrett Anderson is sad to see him go is a sign that it may have been a bad move. Another factor is all of the heartache Teixeira caused us when he was a Ranger. I hated it when he came to bat! But, when all is said and done, Teixeira is a better and more proven player and we're a slightly better team with him on the field and in the lineup. So, given that, and the 10 exciting things listed above, it's great to be an Angel fan right now.

Go Halos!!!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

On Over-spiritualizing Things

When I was a kid, maybe 5 or 6 years old, I went to the local Lutheran Church with my grandparents. I remember odd things like playing with the kneelers (to the annoyance of everyone in the row), going up to the front of the Church for the children's sermon (I don't remember actually being up front or any of the content of the sermons, of course) and asking my grandma for gum during the service (and her graciously giving me half a stick of Freedent). None of these things explain why I feel warm towards Lutheranism to this very day, that story belongs to another post. This one deals with one other element of a traditional Lutheran Church service that I still vividly remember.

On the wall toward the front of the Church, in plain view of everyone in the congregation, hung a metal (or possibly wooden) sign with slots to easily insert and arrange numbers corresponding to the hymnals in the pew, so that people could find the hymns prior to them being sung. I guess these are called hymn boards, but I surely didn't know that as a kid. I simply had a grand time finding the hymns for the day's service and proudly giving a well-marked hymnal to my grandparents. I'm sure I thought that I deserved that half-stick of gum.

When I got older and started thinking more deeply about worship services and how best to prepare myself for and engage in corporate worship, I grew to appreciate the idea of the hymn board, even though no Church that I'm currently affiliated with uses one. In the days before mass duplication of weekly Church bulletins, it seems like a great way to let people know what hymns would be part of that day's worship. But that's only the pragmatic reason. The spiritual reason for finding the hymn board so impressive is so that people can look up and contemplate the words of the hymns prior to the start of the service. If someone comes to Church about 20 minutes early they can easily meditate on the sermon text for the day (which is posted on the street sign outside of my childhood Lutheran Church) and contemplate the day's hymns in soul-preparation for the day's liturgy. This all seems like it could foster an aura of spiritual preparation. That's the kind of thing lacking in Churches where a large portion of the congregation comes after the service has already started.

But today, as you either know or could have guessed, I found out the real reason for the hymn board. And the reason, while quite remarkable, contains no hint of concern for soul-care. I finished the summer '07 issue of Christian History and Biography, which focuses its attention on the life and work of J.S. Bach. In issues that focus on an individual, Christian History and Biography usually has an article highlighting other influential figures of the time period. In this particular issue, the article highlights Lutheran musicians between Luther and Bach. One of them was Dietrich Buxtehude, a Lutheran composer and organist from the late 17th - early 18th centuries. From here I'll let the author of the article, Carlos Messerli, explain.

"Buxtehude was a virtuoso organist, skilled in improvising. Many of his pieces featured a chorale melody in either simple or highly ornamented arrangements. His very elaborate musical introductions often left the congregation in the dark about exactly which hymn was to be sung next. This confusion led to the practice of posting the hymns (by number) on a board visible to all, a practice that was still common in many churches throughout much of the 20th century." (p.22)

So, I guess I let my imagination get away from me a bit on that one. Not that people can’t use the hymn postings for spiritual preparation; they can and they should. It's just that the original intent wasn't nearly so lofty. Buxtehude indirectly gave us the hymn board, for which I thank him. And I thank the author of the article for pointing out reality, to which I'll allow my beliefs about the hymn board correspond from here on out. But I'll refrain from thanking myself for the over-spiritualizing of the whole thing. In fact, I'll take it as a lesson for the future.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Again with the Red Sox

During last year's MLB playoffs, I wrote a post about how disgusted I was with Red Sox character. Well, they've done it again this season and I'm again disgusted that they are the best team out there. Actually, the offending episode really only involves one player but it's certainly in keeping with what the current Red Sox have proven themselves to be.

I was pretty invested in last year's negative display, mostly because it happened with my Angels on the loosing end of the score card. But last week's violation is bias free because it was against the Tampa Bay Rays, a team I don't give a flying rip about (I kind of give a rip now because I'd love for the Rays to mop the floor with the Sox after this series of incidents). You can watch the following clips to see what happened:

Red Sox vs. Rays, June 4, 2008 — Coco Crisp is "offended," slides dirty and curses like a sailor.

Red Sox vs. Rays, June 5, 2008 — Coco Crisp charges the mound.

Was Coco's first steal inappropriately blocked by the shortstop, Jason Bartlett, or was the block against the rules of the game? Sure. Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. But, Coco did successfully steal the base and Bartlett's block was not so flagrantly inappropriate or so against the rules that any umpires decided to do anything about it. It certainly didn't justify Coco delivering a forearm to the groin of the Rays' second baseman, Akinori Iwamura (not the guy who "inappropriately" blocked Coco earlier!!!), several innings later while trying to steal another base. And the kicker was the shouting match that ensued between Coco and the Rays' manager. What justifies that kind of public outburst when you are the one who started all the dirty stuff in the beginning? Nothing, of course. Not in the game of baseball where we try to keep that kind of thing to a minimum.

And then we have the fight the next night. I must say that the former pro-wrestling/ultimate fighting fan in me gets a little excited when the benches clear. In principle, however, I'm against baseball fights (and not only because baseball players are really poor fighters). So Coco gets hit by Sheilds' pitch, IN THE LEG, and he charges the mound. This is the point at which Coco looses any amount of credibility as the "offended party." If a baseball pitcher wants to throw at you, he can throw right at your head, threatening your life. When he throws at your leg it was more likely an accident than intentional. Maybe Sheilds threw intentionally but, if he did, why charge the mound if he only threw at your leg? Because of your massively inflated ego, that's why. Since baseball players can't fight, no one got hurt physically in the rumble (unless I'm remembering incorrectly), but Coco Crisp, and the Red Sox by association, certainly hurt themselves in the eyes of civilized, morality-conscious baseball fans everywhere (this group, of course, being defined as those that agree with me).

The icing on the cake is that the Rays, who got forearmed in the groin and suspended for being involved in the fighting took all of their suspensions as assigned and did not try to appeal them. Coco Crisp, however, appealed his suspension. I don't care why he did so. I just think that if you're going to dishonor the game with cheap shots, a foul mouth and undisciplined aggression, pay the consequences and move on.

Probably, the Red Sox will make it to the playoffs. And if the Angels make it to the playoffs, the Red Sox will probably beat them. But, even if that happens, at least we won't be the ones who gave the game a black eye for playing like a self-indulgent, narcissistic street gang.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

When a Philosopher Comes to Town

I really like to read and study philosophy. That doesn't make me a philosopher. Several of my colleagues in theological education (missionaries as well as Ukrainians) can really get serious when our discussions cross over into philosophy. That doesn't make us philosophers either. And all of us end up teaching philosophy, in one way or another, in the various courses we teach and sermons we preach in institutions and Churches throughout Ukraine. Not even that brings us close to sharing the kind of nature/intellectual caliber possessed by a true, academically trained and actively engaged philosopher. I know because I just spent the last week with a real philosopher, and it wasn't anything like the above experiences.

Dr. R. Douglas Geivett — accidentally referred to as "Dr. Doug" during dinner one evening and hence, referred to as such from now on in our home (sorry Doug) — taught apologetics to the Talbot-Kyiv students this past week. Dr. Geivett is a professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has graduate and post-graduate credentials in philosophy, and he has been teaching apologetics, epistemology, philosophy of religion and a host of other courses for over 15 years. He has written and edited several books, written chapters and articles for edited works, written journal articles, and he speaks and debates regularly at Christian and non-Christian institutions and academic conferences. He is at the forefront of the evangelical revival in philosophy and it was quite a privilege to have him here in Kyiv to provide top-notch training to our M.A. students.

I tried to sit in on his class as much as I could. I've taught apologetics twice since being in Ukraine and expect to teach it many more times in various settings before our time here is done. My course (and the future students to whom I will teach it) can only benefit from my gleaning from Dr. Geivett new ways to think about and present apologetic themes and ideas. But being an administrator for the M.A. program, I had to spend lots of time out of the classroom attending to other necessary matters. I should have refrained from going to the class altogether, since what I did sit in on only made me want to be there all the more. Fortunately, one of the students recorded the lectures and will provide me with a copy. Unfortunately, I won't have any of Geivett's PowerPoint slides or most of the charts he drew on the whiteboard. Maybe the student will lend me those, too.

The personal highlight of Doug's visit was Saturday, after the course was over, when I took him on a 9-hour tour of Kyiv. Because professors for our M.A. program have to teach 8-hour days for one week straight, I try to refrain from barraging them with too many questions and discussion items during that week. But once the course is over, it's my turn. We talked about epistemology, apologetic methodology, potential graduate programs and plenty of good books, all interspersed with facts and figures about Ukraine and info about our respective families, of course. In general, I always get a little discouraged when I think about future Ph.D. studies, because I'm not sure if I'll get accepted into a program or be able to handle the level of study if I were to be accepted. Doug, in spite of his full exposure to my inferior capabilities as a philosopher, was extremely encouraging and gave me some really good advice (applicable whether I choose to pursue a philosophy or theology Ph.D.). Not all philosophers are so analytical that there's no room left for grace and friendliness. Thanks, Doug.

If you have a chance to read anything by Dr. Geivett, do so. He started a blog a few months ago and it is already jam-packed with posts and links. He most recently edited the book, Faith, Film & Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen, which has its own blog, as well. He gave me the book as a gift and I look forward to reading it this summer. You should too! You can see what else he's written by checking out the faculty publications page of the Talbot website or by downloading his curriculum vitae from the same site. If you get a chance to hear him preach, lecture or debate, or are able to take a class with him, do that too. You'll only benefit from it and you'll be that much sharper, intellectually, for it.

But to any future teachers coming to teach in the Talbot program, be warned; when a philosopher, theologian, Church historian or Biblical scholar comes to town, you'll have to deal with more than just the students. Your leisurely tour around Kyiv after a long week of teaching will include some hard questions and serious discussion.*

*"Hard" and "serious" are relative. What's hard and serious for your tour guide, won't likely be hard for you.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Jesus on Film — Give Us the Gospel of Mark!

During the course of my preparations to teach last week's Christology class, I came up with an idea. Inspired by both Scot McKnight's little book, Who is Jesus? and Donald Guthrie's big book, New Testament Theology, I decided to read through the four canonical Gospels in a week and underline every name Jesus was ever called or by which He was ever referenced. McKnight and Guthrie both provide deeper and more insightful than normal investigations into the various titles assigned to Jesus in the Gospels and the meanings those titles carried for those who used them. My goal was to read them all in context and in comparison with each of the other Gospels.

Well, as I often do, I bit off more than I could chew and found myself closing in on the end of the week prior to my class having read only Matthew, Mark and the first third of Luke. Thankfully—as many of you likely already know—there is a movie out that is not just based on the Gospel of John, it is the Gospel of John, word for word, no additions, no subtractions. Visual Bible International puts Scripture to film and, preserving the text in full, builds the acting and cinematography around the text. It's the same thing that happens when you read John and imagine how it all played out, only someone else has done the imagining for you and made a really great movie from it. So, instead of watching another episode of Lost or a little more of Ken Burns' mammoth documentary Baseball, we watched The Gospel of John.

I was as blown away by how beautiful of a film it is as I was when I saw it in the theater in late 2003. I remain baffled as to why it was released during the height of the debate over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Almost all of movie-going Christianity (and a good chunk of those who refrain from movie-going) had focused all of Its attention and energy on The Passion, hence almost no one went to see The Gospel of John. If it would have been held six to nine months and released in the late summer/early fall of 2004, I think it would have been infinitely more noticed and appreciated for how unique and powerful it is. I don't have anything against The Passion, I just think the Gospel of John is outstanding and should be on more people's radar screens.

"And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen ..."

And here is why I'm a little down that it is not more appreciated than it is. At the beginning of the DVD there is an ad for a Visual Bible International version of the Gospel of Mark, using the same superb actor and, I would expect, the same disciples and other characters from The Gospel of John, most of whom did a fabulous job. The only thing stated as far as a release date was "coming soon." Not having seen that ad before, I rushed to the computer and tried to find out if it had been released yet, or when it was going to be released. I couldn't find much, but what I could find informed me that the project is pretty much dead in the water since The Gospel of John did not bring in the revenue or attention that all had hoped. There may be some things happening to push the new film project forward that aren't being disseminated via the internet, but it doesn't look good. So, with as much enthusiasm as I can muster in light of my apparently dashed hopes, I encourage you all to buy, not rent, The Gospel of John. It's better than The Jesus Film, a more complete picture of Jesus' life than The Passion and is just a great movie. And then, if you agree that it's great, tell everyone you know about it. And then, with time, just maybe we'll get to see the literary beauty of Gospel of Mark expressed in the same cinematic beauty as was the Gospel of John.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Phones and Motorcycles

Not long ago, my wife had a post called "too bad I don't have a camera phone," which talked about some very Ukrainian cultural experiences. Yesterday, for a brief moment, I wished I had a camera phone to capture what I thought was going to be a very American cultural experience with Dietrich.

We were in a nearby mall and, while Josie shopped for a few things, I did my best to entertain Dietrich. It helped that there was an indoor skating rink (plastic, not ice) since Dietrich loves other little kids and can spend quite a while simply observing them. His dad, on the other hand, got bored after a while and looked for some other amusing distractions. I noticed a few of those riding machines for little kids—a spaceship and a race car, to be exact—but they required that you put the kid in them alone, so they were intended for kids a little older than little D. But around the bend I saw a few more machines—a horse and a police motorcycle, to be exact—and they were just Dietrich's size. I could stand nearby and hold him on the machine while it did its thing.

Next I tried to insert some coins. There was no way any standard Ukrainian coin was going to fit into the slot that seemed to be the intended place of insertion. I walked over to the spaceship and race car and noticed a sign (printed on a standard sheet of paper in Ukrainian, not Russian) that might have been telling me where to get tokens from, but I couldn't read it. I walked back to the horse and motorcycle and noticed the same sign nearly hidden between two huge, illuminated, protruding posters for clothing. Finding the sign wasn't much help, since I still couldn't read it, so I asked a nearby security guard how to use the machines and, since he answered me in Russian, I was off to get a coin.

$1.00 later, and for the first and last time at that price, we headed toward the motorcycle (no pink and baby blue horses for my son!). I put in the oddly but properly shaped token, held Dietrich on the motorcycle and we were off. That was the moment I wished I had a camera phone. But it was a brief moment. Within 5 to 7 seconds, he was certain that he did not like this black and white contraption with its flashing lights and poorly tuned, quite loud engine. I promptly took him off, gave him a few seconds to recover and gave it another shot. He let out a ear piercing shriek and we were done with the riding machine experiment for the winter of 2008.

No need for a camera phone just yet.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bad News for the Futrue of the Sanctity of Life Movement

Although it can be depressing to think about how little progress has been made in the fight against abortion and against the slow move toward the acceptance of euthanasia, one thing is encouraging—the debate has remained in the center of the public square. As long as sanctity of life issues are debated and discussed we can hope and pray that the maxim of Justin Martyr might eventually prove to be true, "it is not impossible to put ignorance to flight by presenting truth." Maybe, just maybe, we can persuade the public and influence the government of the atrocities of abortion and euthanasia by sticking to our consistent, rationally defensible and morally superior message of the value of all life. With these issues debated frequently and fervently, it could and should happen.

But our goals will be harder to attain if the debate simply fades into the oblivion of historical curiosity. If younger generations fail to see life vs. choice issues as worthy of sustained public attention, then our message will have not only intellectual, emotional and moral obstacles to overcome, we will have to overcome issues of general knowledge and basic awareness. According to an article in the Feb. 11 edition of Time, we might be facing just such a change. The article focuses on the youth vote in the '08 presidential campaign and the contributors make the following comment,

"Pollster Frank Luntz gathered a group of New Hampshire students on the eve of the primary there, and the hour-long conversation barely touched on the hot buttons of yore: abortion, crime and affirmative action. Their world, after all, encompasses RU 486, lower murder rates and Oprah. What concerns many of them is the nature of politics: the perceived gridlock of parties, conniving special interests and shallow biases of the media." p. 39

I won't dwell on the lack of substance in the group of issues that do concern this particular group when compared with the issues that they supposedly don't care all that much about. All I'll say is that I hope, for the sake of the human dignity issues, that this little sample of youth is not representative of the broader youth population. If it is, our job is going to get harder, not easier.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In But Not Of

With the spring semester starting this week, I probably won't finish this book for a while. That being the case, I want to share something from Kenneth A. Myers', All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture—a horrifically bad title for an outstandingly great book—before I forget. By the time I finish the book, the current passage I'm mulling over will have been replaced by countless others, I'm sure.

First of all, a word about the book in general. It was written in 1989 so, lots of the "popular culture" Myers addresses is not so popular anymore. But so far, none of his now-outdated references have negated any of his principles. You can take out references to VCRs, cable boxes and Bon Jovi and replace them with DVD players, Wi-Fi and Justin Timberlake and the message hits home just as effectively. In sum, Myers warns us against completely removing ourselves from culture—which would be not in and not of—and against mimicking our culture by keeping all of its forms but replacing the secular content with Christian content—which would be of but not in. He proposes that we live in such a way that we influence our culture towards consistency with what God intended for it in the beginning. Christians, being Spirit-filled, live sanctified lives that can affect and influence the unsanctified culture in which we live. This is how to truly be in and not of. The rest of the book is a discussion of how we got the popular culture we have, how to assess it and how to go about influencing it for the better.

The passage that struck me today is about properly evaluating various pop culture products (songs, books, films, etc.) and determining which, if any, are acceptable for us to consume. Being the kind of person who often wonders whether or not I'm consuming too much, the chapter seemed directed right at me. I was relieved and encouraged to hear Myers express these concluding thoughts, not just because they leave a place for the intake and enjoyment of popular culture but because they correctly reflect my take on the Bible's instructions to us about culture. I think they should serve as a challenge to every citizen of the Kingdom of God as we enjoy the world into which God has placed us and, at the same time, try to influence it to be as reflective of its original intent as it can be this side or our Lord's return.

"Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial or constructive, says Paul in I Corinthians 10. Eating meat offered to idols is no problem for the Christian as long as the Christian doesn't believe that the idols have any spiritual reality. As long as the Corinthian believers were not caught up in the Zeitgeist of Corinth, as long as the sensibility of the culture did not dominate their own sensibilities, they could participate in the intrinsically innocent activities their culture afforded. But if someone was gripped by the culture's own myths, even the meat was tainted."

"The same holds true in our day. There is nothing wrong with frivolous activity for one whose life is not committed to frivolity. There is no harm in superficial pleasures for one who also has a knowledge of the tragic and of the transcendent. The subjectivism of popular culture is impotent for someone whose life is characterized by a rootedness in objective reality."

"Christians should not fear the idols and myths of our day, as long as they have no reverence for them. But idols and myths can take the form of moods and sensibilities as well as stone and creed, and there are many disturbing signs that many contemporary Christians have made the limited and limiting sensibility of popular culture their own."

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Thanks, Uncle Sam

Read the following song lyrics:

pay the chicken back back, pay the chicken back,
pay back the chicken back, do the chicken payback.

pay the piggy back back, pay the piggy back,
pay back the piggy back, do the piggy payback.

pay the monkey back back, pay the monkey back,
see the monkey, do the monkey, pay the monkey back.

pay the chicken back back, pay the chicken back,
pay back the chicken back, back, do the chicken payback.

pay the camel back, sittin' on the camel back,
see the camel, do the camel, pay the camel back.

pay the donkey back, back, pay the donkey back,
pay back the donkey, pay back, pay back the donkey.

all the animals together, break it down, let me hear ya …

pay the chicken back back, pay the chicken back back,
do the chicken payback, pay back the chicken.

pay the piggy back back, pay the piggy back
see the piggy, do the piggy, pay the piggy back.

pay the monkey back back, pay the monkey back,
pay back the monkey, pay back, pay back the monkey.

pay the chicken back back, pay the chicken back,
pay back the chicken back, do the chicken payback.

pay the camel back back, pay the camel back,
pay back the camel, pay back, pay back the camel.

pay the donkey back back, pay the donkey back,
pay back the donkey, pay back, pay back the donkey, pay back.

pay back the donkey
pay back the piggy
pay back the monkey
pay back the chicken

Do you find it hard to imagine why in the world I've posted these? You won't, if you go here and then imagine how much fun it is to jump around the kitchen with my 16-month old to this catchy number, while he laughs and screams contagiously. Every time we play this song, I'm amazed at how such meaningless, almost idiotic lyrics can bring such happiness to our little threesome. Way to go, Band of Bees, way to go!

But really, thanks goes to Dietrich's uncle, Sam, who put the song on a mix CD in celebration of the little one's life. Sam has been great about keeping us up-to-date musically through periodic mix CDs. Were it not for Sam, I would be in the dark about Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, all bands that I can't imagine not listening to. Being in Ukraine, we miss out on a lot of American culture, but with Sam's help we're staying somewhat in touch musically. Keep it up, Sam, it's greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Truth in the Least Likely of Places

Here in Ukraine, only the Catholics and the Evangelicals — who together make up a very small percentage of the Christian community — celebrate Christmas on December 25th. Instead, Ukrainians do their gift giving on January 1st and celebrate Christ's birth according to the Orthodox calendar, which is January 7th. All of this means that things are busy right up to, and even after December 25th, making it hard to slow down and focus on the spiritual Center of the coming holiday. So, this year, we decided to move our sleeping in, special breakfast and gift giving to January 1st. Rather than feeling like New Year's Day, today feels like Christmas morning.

In that spirit, I tracked down the song, Spotlight on Christmas by Rufus Wainwright that a friend of ours had mentioned in an email. And it turns out that I actually love it, despite my best intentions to avoid being sucked in by catchy pop music that lacks creativity and does not involve much talent. I'm not making a blanket judgment on Rufus Wainwright, not knowing him or his music very well. It just seems, from this song and the few others that I've heard, that he creates catchy pop music that lacks creativity and does not involve much talent.

The main reason that I love it, however, has little to do with the music but a lot to do with the second verse. It goes like this:

People love and people hate
People go and people wait
But, don't forget Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Once were a family poor but rich in hope, yeah
Don't forget Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Running from the law, King Herod hath imposed
And they were each one quite odd
And mensch, a virgin, and a God
But don't forget that what kept them afloat
Floating through the desert doesn't take a boat, no
Don't forget that what kept them above
Is unconditional love

Yes, the line about the boat in the desert is cheesy and yes, he may not believe what he sings about Jesus, Mary and Joseph but, at the end of the day, finding Christian truth proclaimed unexpectedly in a pop song kinda gets me going. Nothing beats Linus reading Jesus' birth narrative from the Gospel of Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas. But with our VCR broken this "Christmas," I'll thank Rufus Wainwright for bring the Gospel to me through pop culture.