Review: Kingdom Without Borders

Kingdom without BordersKingdom Without BordersMiriam Adeney. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Summary: Adeney, a professor of global and urban ministries, chronicles the global spread of Christianity through stories of sacrificial and courageous Christians in the Majority World.

Philip Jenkins has studied the spread of Christianity in the southern hemisphere and majority world. For many this is a study of statistics and demographics. Miriam Adeney tells a similar story, not so much through demographics as through people, some deeply spiritual, some taking great risks, and some suffering great loss, and achieving great glory and the spread of the gospel.

In her first chapter, on the spread of global Christianity, she observes:

“…the future global church may not be Western-led, and that’s OK. Let the mantle pass. We in the West can learn to follow, can’t we?” (p. 40).

The remainder of the book is the story of some of those who we may follow, or at least learn to work with in humble partnership.

She begins with the rapidly growing church in China, and the persecution that has and still occurs and the courageous witness of house church leaders and rural pastors. She then alternates chapters on peoples or even continents with themes like “Word” focusing on Ann Judson’s pioneering Bible translation efforts and the continuing importance of this work. She turns to pentecostal Latin America, and then the spirituality of Sadhu Sundar Singh. She turns to the Muslim world, and particularly Iran where there may be as many as 800,000 Christians facing everything from losing their jobs to losing their lives.

She explores the catastrophe of global poverty, the mistakes often made in development efforts and the creative programs that are fostering sustainable development in various parts of the world, particularly uplifting women. Then she tells the stories of Christian mission in the Hindu world and the challenge of contextualizing the gospel without compromising it in this context. She considers “song” and the necessity of music in the heart languages and musical idioms of majority cultures.

She explores African Christians who “go through fire”, facing the challenge of Islam in some countries, the challenge of prosperity gospels in others. Her concluding two chapters center around the death and resurrection life of Jesus–the real thread of persecution and suffering and death that runs through many of these narratives, and the vision toward which the church lives of the new heaven and new earth where the nations are gathering into “the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ.”

This book is less a tight intellectual argument and more an exuberant travelogue around the theme of the growth of global Christianity. It is not a book of strategy but of stories that challenge, inspire, and exemplify vibrant Christian faith. In particular, it can serve to lift the eyes of westerners caught up in our intramural controversies and cultural captivities to see the moving of the Spirit of God and the faithfulness of Christians. Hopefully this book might awaken us to what God is doing beyond our own borders (and how silly we must look to some of our brothers and sisters). And that would be a good thing.

The Month in Reviews: July 2015

This has been a month of vacationing, of bookstore crawling, and even a trip to Mexico. So squeezing some reading in has been a bit of a challenge. But I finished a couple longish books and a total of nine this month. I read about walking labyrinths, searching for Sunday, pursuing the road to character, dwelling with God, and heeding the warning, “here be dragons”! I considered C. S. Lewis’s view of God, and that of seven American liberals in the 18th to 20th centuries. Along the way, I even managed a literary stay, as it were, at Bertram’s Hotel. Intrigued? I’ll keep you waiting no longer…

Walking the Labyrinth1. Walking the LabyrinthTravis Scholl. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. The book consists of a series of reflections over the forty days of Lent intermingling thoughts on the gospel of Mark, life, and the daily walking of a labyrinth in the churchyard of a neighborhood church.

At Bertram's Hotel2. At Bertram’s HotelAgatha Christie. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2011 (reprint). Bertram’s is a quietly elegant hotel from the Edwardian era that seems utterly respectable from the outside and yet is the center of a nefarious crime syndicate and a murder late in the story that Miss Marple and Chief Inspector (Scotland Yard) Davy attempt to unravel.

Is Your Lord Large Enough3. Is Your Lord Large Enough?, Peter J. Schakel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008. This book looks at the contribution Lewis made, particularly through the way his books engage the imagination, to the spiritual formation of Christians, exploring a number of the matters crucial to their growth in Christ.

Searching for Sunday4. Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015. As the subtitle suggests, this is a narrative of the author’s struggle between loving and leaving the Church, only to find her loved renewed through the sacramental practices that she sees at the heart of the Church’s life.

Here be Dragons5. Here Be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penman. New York, Ballantine Books, 1985. The first of the Welsh Princes Trilogy set in the early 13th century, this book explores the conflict between John, the King of England, and Llewelyn, who sought to unify a divided Wales against the English threat. Their lives are intertwined by the daughter of John, Joanna, who becomes the wife of Llewelyn, finding herself torn between loves for father and husband, then husband and son.

The Religion of Democracy6. The Religion of Democracy, Amy Kittelstrom. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. This book traces the “American Reformation” of Christianity through the lives of seven key figures spanning the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, in which adherence to creed shifted to the dictates of personal judgment and the focus shifted from eternal salvation to ethical conduct reflecting a quest for moral perfection and social benefit.

dwell7. Dwell: Life with God for the World, Barry D. Jones. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A focus on mission and a focus on spiritual formation are often divorced from one another. This book argues for a missional spirituality rooted in the incarnation of Jesus, his dwelling among us to restore broken shalom that is revealed in spiritual practices that herald the vision of the kingdom that is both present and to come.

Why Christian faith8. Why Christian Faith Makes SenseC. Stephen EvansGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. Against the contemporary challenges by the New Atheists, this book explores why the Christian faith makes sense, even though the existence of God may not be proven, through the consideration of both “natural signs” and the self-revelation of God.

The Road to Character9. The Road to Character, David Brooks. New York, Random House, 2015. David Brooks explores the issue of character development through the hard-won pursuit of moral virtue, exemplified in the moral quests of people as diverse as Augustine and Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day.

Best book of the month: David Brooks The Road to Character is my choice for this month’s best book, both for the quality of writing and for the conversation he attempts to provoke with regard to the moral ecology of our country.

Best quote of the month: This from Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday, which is an example of her exquisite writing:

“…Sunday morning sneaks up on us — like dawn, like resurrection, like the sun that rises a ribbon at a time. We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground, God is here.” (p. 258).

Today begins a week on jury duty. Needless to say, I’ll have some books in my bag along with other work. One I won’t be carrying because it is a thick book but one I’m thoroughly enjoying is Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation, a chronicle of the spirit of the times in ante- and post-bellum America. Strikes me as eerily similar to today.

Hope you get some good summer reading in during these last days of summer!

[Links in this post are to the full reviews in Bob on Books. In those reviews, you may find links to publishers websites.]

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Ice Cream

250px-HandelsAs we enter the dog days of summer, there is nothing like a trip to a local ice cream stand to cool off and enjoy a sweet treat at the same time. Where we live in Columbus, we are blessed with living a five minute drive from a Handel’s stand (how did they know we were nearby?). So going out for ice cream always brings back Youngstown memories of Handel’s and other good places for ice cream.

Let’s begin with Handel’s. The company website says Alice Handel started serving homemade ice cream out of her husband’s gas station as far back as 1945, using old-fashioned recipes and fresh fruit. Wikipedia indicates the franchise was established in November 1969, the same time as Columbus-original, Wendy’s. All I know was that Handel’s was among the places to be on a hot summer evening and teens drove from all over town to get Mrs. Handel’s homemade ice cream, sitting on or in our cars to eat it, since it was a walk up stand off an alley near the intersection of Market and Midlothian. (My wife grew up just down the street on Midlothian–I had to come all the way from the west side!). Handel’s has made a number of “Ten Best” lists including a list in USA Today.

Isaly'sI don’t think I heard of Handel’s until high school. Until then, the place to go was Isaly’s. Both my wife and I have memories of our parents driving to the main Isaly dairy plant at the intersection of Mahoning Avenue and Glenwood to get their trademark skyscraper cones, scooped with a specially designed scoop. My wife remembers her folks always getting the sherbets, particularly orange sherbet. I was more a butter pecan and chocolate guy. It was all good.

Klondikes, Chipped Ham, & Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly's by Brian Butko. For more information, contact Stackpole Books at (800) 732-3669 or sales@stackpolebooks.com

Klondikes, Chipped Ham, & Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly’s by Brian Butko. For more information, contact Stackpole Books at (800) 732-3669 or sales@stackpolebooks.com

Isaly’s actually didn’t get started in Youngstown but in Mansfield, Ohio, moving early to Marion, Ohio, from which it expanded to Columbus, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh. According to Wikipedia, Isaly’s launched a commercial building program in the 1930’s in an art deco/Art Moderne style of which the Youngstown dairy plant was a prime example. Sadly, the dairy operation closed in 1969 and the building was eventually sold to U-Haul, who still occupies it. In 1986 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Truly, it is an iconic Youngstown building!

The local standby within walking distance of my home was Dairy Queen, on Mahoning Avenue between Maryland and Belle Vista. There was a time you could get a small vanilla or chocolate soft-serve cone for 5 cents, complete with the twirl on top. A 15 cent cone was huge. For a little extra, you could get chocolate or strawberry “dips”. Later, they added things like Dilly bars, but plain old ice cream cones were my favorite. The old Dairy Queen building is still standing according to Google Street View, now the site of Hunan Express.

My wife and I speculated that going out for ice cream was popular in part because back when we were growing up, our refrigerators had very small freezers, unless you had a separate freezer, which neither of our parents had. You had to use the freezer for those staple items, whether frozen juices, vegetables or meats, and just didn’t have room for a carton of ice cream. And it was cheap! Imagine getting ice cream for a family of four for as little as 50 cents, and certainly under a dollar. Now, it is $5 or more for my wife and I to go to our local Handel’s (but still worth it!).

I’d love to hear your ice cream memories and your stories of other good places to get ice cream around Youngstown!

[Want to read other “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts? Just click “On Youngstown” on the menu bar at the top of this page to read any or all in this series.]

Review: The Road to Character

The Road to CharacterThe Road to Character, David Brooks. New York, Random House, 2015.

Summary: David Brooks explores the issue of character development through the hard-won pursuit of moral virtue, exemplified in the moral quests of people as diverse as Augustine and Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day.

I’ve long followed The New York Times op-ed pieces of David Brooks. Brooks often has seemed to me to be a quiet, reasoned voice speaking against the prevailing cultural winds. I wrote recently about the qualities of charity and cogency in public conversation and have long considered Brooks an exemplar of such qualities.

In The Road to Character, David Brooks seeks to initiate a conversation about moral ecology, particularly that of the United States. Brooks contends that there are two moral ecologies, one that emphasizes “resume” virtues, the other that emphasizes “eulogy” virtues, and that the resume virtue (or Adam I) moral ecology is prevalent in our moral landscape. It is a moral ecology that emphasizes “the Big Me” and focuses on skill and human potential. The other ecology (Adam II) understands human beings as “crooked timber” (a phrase drawn from Kant), and recognizes that we often fail to live up to our own ideals, and are not always fully aware of the drives and impulses that shape our moral actions, for good and for harm. This tradition emphasizes a moral awareness that results in humility, a striving toward moral excellence while acknowledge the reality that we fall short of the mark.

Brooks explores the “road to character” through brief sketches of a variety of individuals who he believe exemplify this “Adam II” quest. He explores the lives of a diverse cast of people from Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, to the contrasting figures of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (the former one of iron moral discipline, the latter who struggled toward a moral life and commitment for much of his life). There are both the religious, such as Augustine, who recognized that our incorrigible fallenness could only be overcome by grace, and those who turned from religion, like George Eliot, and who strove in their own character for moral coherence. We have the outwardly sunny Dwight Eisenhower, who struggled with a volcanic temper, and the self-controlled George Marshall, whose sense of calling and greatness of vision meant often working in supporting roles and yet gave Europe the Marshall Plan, which he always spoke of as the European Recovery Plan.

The concluding chapter is a kind of summing up, contrasting the “Big Me” of our current moral ecology, with the “code of humility” of the crooked timber tradition. His statements in this section were for me worth the price of admission. One example:

“We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course–either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted….” (p. 265).

It seems this is an especially important conversation in this age of “Trumpery” where glitz and appearance seem to count for more than character. What I appreciate in what Brooks does is he engages us in a public conversation that includes both people of faith and those who would not identify with any faith but care about the moral character of our lives and public life. His exemplars are drawn from all of these backgrounds, and all are those who have had moral struggles and some reached moral conclusions that not all would embrace (for example George Eliot, who co-habited in a relationship with a married man).

It seems to me that Brooks is serious about this conversation. Not only has he appeared in various public and online media as well as his regular op-eds, but also he has created a companion website (The Road to Character) to the book. For my readerly friends, it includes a library of resources. He speaks in his book, borrowing a phrase from Eugene Peterson, of “the long obedience in the same direction.” It is my hope that Brooks will persist in this work, and find many companions on the journey.

Review: Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense

Why Christian faithWhy Christian Faith Makes SenseC. Stephen EvansGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

Summary: Against the contemporary challenges by the New Atheists, this book explores why the Christian faith makes sense, even though the existence of God may not be proven, through the consideration of both “natural signs” and the self-revelation of God.

In both university “bull sessions” and formal debates, I’ve been a part of or witnessed many discussions about the existence of God. Atheists have often argued that such a contention is anti-rational (as do the New Atheists of the present day) while Christians and other theists seek to make arguments and cite evidence that proves, or at least makes reasonable, the existence of God. Most of the time, I’ve left these with at least a vague sense of dissatisfaction–Christians gave good reasons, atheists posed good reservations or counter-reasons. And rarely has this gone beyond discussion of some abstraction titled “God” to particular belief in God, whether Yahweh, or the Allah of Islam, or the Triune God of Christian faith–or something else.

In this book, C. Stephen Evans addresses the critique of the New Atheists and finds it wanting and proposes a way of framing an argument for Christian faith, that while not logical proof, makes reasonable sense and is not a leap into irrationality. He begins with the role of natural theology, not as a way to prove God or arrive at a Christian theology of God, but as a defense of “anti-naturalism”. He then proceeds to discuss what he calls “natural signs” or aspects of our existence in the natural world that point to God. These include the experience of cosmic wonder, purposive order, the sense of being morally accountable, the sense of human dignity and worth, and the longing for transcendent joy. He establishes as a criteria for natural signs that they be both widely accessible and easily resistible. In other words, most human beings experience these and yet this does not compel belief and one may make logical arguments against the signs. Yet they still have an appeal and are worthy of consideration because they track with what we know both of the external world and of our own internal consciousness.

Evans, coming from a Reformed perspective, then argues that belief in God, which he considers “properly basic” can ultimately arise only from God’s self-revelation, in the case of Christians through the Bible and the internal witness of the Spirit. He explores how we might recognize the self-revelation of God and makes the case for how this might be both authoritative and authentic. One important defense he makes is that revelation will not conform to what might be grasped by reason alone. I’ve often thought that one of the most compelling things about Christian faith is the “who would of thunk it” principle–that humans just would not have made up the story this way. He then explores the criteria of miracles, the criteria of paradox, and the criteria of existential power of God’s self-revelation.

What this affirms is that belief goes far beyond intellectual evidence to personal reasons and knowledge that convert the heart and that an argument for faith must include both cogent intellectual reasons and clear delineation of the contours of belief, but also a personal narrative of the “reasons of the heart” that persuade one to believe.

Theists and atheists alike who are “evidentialists” will probably take issue with this account. But what is particularly intriguing is how Evans weaves natural theology, and some of the arguments of the evidentialists (rather than dismissing them) into a presuppositionalist account of how one may make sense of Christian faith. With the limited space he has he gives good counter arguments to objections that may be raised. And he gives a helpful account of how it is the case that two individuals, considering the same “evidence” may reach very different conclusions.

This is a helpful work for persons, Christian or atheist, who want to read concise, but carefully reasoned account of how belief in God may be considered properly basic and how reliance upon God’s self-revelation may be intellectually defensible. Others, like Alvin Plantinga have written at greater length on these matters but this is a tightly written 144 page account that may serve as a good introduction.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Two Qualities for Public Conversations

License: Creative Commons Uploaded by: Wikiphoto

Let’s face it, many public conversations are about as pleasant as the sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. Often they are less real conversation than serial monologues where each person makes talking points and attempts to score rhetorical points against the other. Very few represent a serious attempt to hear one another that affirms what we hold in common, carefully makes distinctions where we differ, and argues both thoughtfully and graciously for those distinctions without personal animus. I would suggest that there are two essential qualities, or two “C’s” for good public conversations.

Perhaps before I discuss those “C’s” I should try to articulate what I mean about what is a “public conversation.” I see a public conversation as one that occurs in a public forum, whether that be a political debate, or a town hall meeting, or a university seminar, or a presentation in a community room at one’s local public library. It is a conversation about some public and social good, about what will benefit the flourishing of human beings and the social and physical environment in which they live. And it is inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the public attending. No one group controls or presumes to control the conversation.

I am indebted to an article titled “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars” by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher at Yale for the two “C’s. In answer to the question of how a Christian scholar might speak with a Christian voice into the public conversations at a university he writes:

“Well, for one thing, the Christian voice will be a voice of charity; it will honor all human beings, as Peter puts it in his letter in the New Testament. It will never be abusive. But there is also a more subtle matter to be raised here. The voice with which one speaks must be a voice such that one can be heard – a voice such that one genuinely participates in the dialogue of the discipline. Every now and then, when teaching at Yale, I would have a student who did not know how to speak in the voice appropriate to philosophy; invariably this was an evangelical. Evangelicals often interpret the response they get as hostility to evangelicalism, or hostility to Christianity. Sometimes it is that; but not always. Sometimes it is just that the person has not learned to speak in the appropriate voice.”

The first of the two “C’s” is one he mentions by name. It is charity. No public conversation will be constructive if it tears down people. No conversation will be constructive if it assumes the worst in others. No public conversation will be constructive if begins without good will toward others and the effort to find common ground in our humanity and in at least being willing to give a fair hearing to the ideas of the other. I find it helpful to assume that another has been at least as thoughtful if not more than I about the matter we are discussing. All this is charity.

The other “C” summarizes the idea of a “voice that can be heard.” The idea here is cogency, “the quality of being clear, logical, and convincing; lucidity.” It means speaking with a voice that is knowledgeable. It is a voice that speaks in terms that are shared and may be grasped by the listening public and the others in the conversation. It means a voice that makes its case with thoughtful argument and not simply provocative soundbites. If charity takes the dignity of others seriously, cogency takes the minds and thoughts of others seriously.

It seems to me that it is these two qualities, practiced together, that produce a third quality, a third “C” that is so wanting in much of our discourse, that of civility. I wonder if one of the criteria we ought to apply in considering candidates for any high office is whether they practice the qualities of charity and cogency resulting in civil public conversations. It seems to me that if they do not meet this criteria (and I think there are those who do not), then they should not be considered fit candidates. Civic leadership at any level should rest on the quality to engage with civility with the civitas, the whole body of citizens one aspires to serve and lead.

Equally, in the academic world, which is often known for its vicious politics, it seems that the qualities of charity and cogency also apply. Universities needn’t be places where people agree. In fact, it is the disagreements that make them interesting places! The rigorous clash of ideas sharpens thinking but it needn’t make enemies. And for those to whom Wolterstorff speaks, Christians, his challenge is one of choosing charity and the hard work of cogency, over pat answers and put downs.

I have no illusions that a magic wand can be waved as in a Disney movie that makes everything sweetness and light. But if enough of us practice these qualities in whatever public forum we engage, and prefer those for leadership who approximate to these virtues, we might at least give others the whiff of something better.

But will they follow their noses?

Review: Dwell–Life with God for the World

dwellDwell: Life with God for the World, Barry D. Jones. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A focus on mission and a focus on spiritual formation are often divorced from one another. This book argues for a missional spirituality rooted in the incarnation of Jesus, his dwelling among us to restore broken shalom that is revealed in spiritual practices that herald the vision of the kingdom that is both present and to come.

If I were to draw a Venn diagram (remember Venn diagrams?) of the group of people who are missional, and the group of people who care deeply about spiritual formation, I would probably draw one with two circles with only a small area of overlap. And sadly, we sometimes have people who live at one of two extremes, either rabidly engaged in mission but lacking in spiritual depth and self-understanding, or people whose spirituality has seemed to turn in on itself, with little or no concern for the world.

Barry Jones believes that the key to a life that brings mission and spiritual formation together is the incarnation of Jesus, his dwelling among us both in a vibrant relationship with the Father and for a mission to restore the broken shalom of the world. He organizes his discussion of missional spirituality around the incarnation of Jesus into three parts: vision, practice, and context.

Chapters one through four focus on gaining a vision of God’s intention in the world. Chapter one begins with the biblical narrative, contending that the concluding vision of the new heaven and earth shapes a spirituality that is creation affirming, people affirming, body affirming, intimately connected to God, and God’s just reign. Chapter two centers on the breaking of God’s shalom by human rebellion and contends that the most appropriate response is a sacred discontent that looks beyond ourselves to God to address the world’s condition. The next chapter explores our deep thirst, a longing for God fulfilled in the outpouring of the Spirit of God through Christ giving us living water and making us as the church, the dwelling place or temple of God on the earth. Finally, in chapter four (which I think should have preceded chapter three) he explores how Jesus incarnation reveals God’s vision for the world as boundary breaker, shalom maker, people keeper and wounded healer.

In the next five chapters, he explores how various spiritual practices flesh out living the vision of God in the world. Chapter five focuses on a “grammar” of the spiritual disciplines, a substructure that governs the appropriate engagement of disciplines in a missional spirituality that includes attentiveness, receptivity, embodiment, community and rhythm. Then in succeeding chapters he focuses on four practices among others that sustain our life in God for the world. These are prayer, worship (the work of the people), sabbath rest, and feasting and fasting. He has some challenging remarks in the chapter on sabbath about engaging relationships and disengaging from our technology. And he observes that feasting as well as fasting are spiritual disciplines that reflect our incarnate life as we long as we long for the world to come.

The final part, on context, consists of just one chapter, which was somewhat surprising. It would seem that much more might be said about this. His focus is first of all on what he sees as a post-Christian western world in which he believes our call is to live question posing lives of faithfulness sustained by our practices and centered around vibrant, parish-like communities that take seriously the physical place in which they are located.

I appreciated the grounding of missional spirituality in the doctrine of the incarnation. The dangers of over-spiritualizing both mission and formation find their corrective in the God who truly has dwelt with us in human flesh and continues to dwell among us and in us through his Spirit. Jones’ ideas about the embodiment inherent in the practices, the incarnational presence of the church and particularly the concern for “placed” parish missional life are helpful contributions to developing a missional spirituality. I hope the author will continue to flesh out these ideas, perhaps thinking and writing more about the third category of context and how congregations may live out an embodied spirituality and missional presence in their local contexts.

Where I Was Last Week

My view walking to breakfast each morning

My view walking to breakfast each morning

Some of you who follow this blog might be curious where I was this past week that led to taking a break from posting new material. I don’t always like posting about travel away from home before hand on social media. As it turns out, I was in Mexico for the past five days at an international conference of collegiate ministries that is held once every four years. I was invited to lead one of the workshops during the conference and also to give one of the plenary addresses. There were roughly 1100 delegates from approximately 159 nations present.

Slavic and Zina from Moldova

Slavic and Zina from Moldova

Needless to say, it was a new and humbling experience to be in such a global gathering of people who work in higher education. At one meal, I would be talking with a national leader of a student movement from Korea, at another, a leader from Malawi. I have been on a list serve with a number of people from around the world and had the opportunity to meet many of them face to face for the first time. I met a Peruvian who had written me some time back (I’d actually forgotten this!) about book recommendations for research he was doing. What a surprise to learn that my name appears in the acknowledgement page of his paper! I had the opportunity to meet the national leader and one of the staff leaders of the student movement of Moldova. We’ve helped their work in various ways over the years but had never personally met–a wonderful highlight!

It will take me a good while to sort out all the experiences of these days, which were packed morning to night–hence no time for blogging. But a few initial impressions:

One was an overwhelming sense of our common humanity, shared faith and calling. We are all people working in the world of higher education seeking to connect our faith with the lives and studies of students and faculty. But there is more. We all have families with the joys and concerns these bring. We all struggle with the exigencies of daily existence and in finding the resources to do what we dream.

Another impression was of the incredible mosaic of diversity reflected in music, languages, dress, and other cultural practices. For one thing, it was a joy to discover the hospitality of our Mexican hosts, the pride they have in their rich culture, and the beauty of their country. In the United States, there is a strong tendency simply to view Mexico as a problem. I came away finding myself thinking that until we can appreciate the richness of culture, of physical beauty, and among many, the faith, hard work, and pride of Mexico’s people, we will have much more difficulty resolving the problems that exist between our nations. Viva Mexico!

And this was true wherever I looked. I met people who, even though they had a clear eyed appreciation of the challenges their countries and their universities face, are people who love deeply their countries and their universities and the students and faculty with whom they work. I got a glimpse of the unique opportunities and challenges many face and also realized even more deeply how much I do not understand.

A final impression I will share here is what an impressive group of people this was, both spiritually and intellectually! In the track I helped co-lead (with a New Zealander and a Sri Lankan) we had gifted faculty from all over the world. One was the first female president of her university in Trinidad. I heard a student from New Zealand give a message that would put to shame many seminary-educated pastors in my country. I heard a Palestinian Christian speak about suffering and yet speak out against anti-Semitism. I was impressed afresh with how much we can learn from the rest of the world!

These are first impressions. As I said, the conversations and experiences of these days will be something I mull over for a long time.

Repost: On Liminal Space

This series of reposts has been a kind of “liminal space”, coming roughly at the end of my second year of blogging–a kind of “in between” space as I move into both a new blogging and academic year. Lord willing, I’ll be back tomorrow with new posts. In the meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this one from last year.

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One of the ways to impress friends (and maybe gain some sympathy if they understand you) is to say that you are in a “liminal space” in your life right now. I’ve come across this idea more and more in the past few years and particularly this week at the conference I am attending. A liminal space is the undefined boundary between two clearly defined spaces. The threshold to my house (the front stoop and entryway) is a liminal space between outdoors and the indoor living areas of my house.

In many instances, this term is used to describe a life transition. Pregnancy is a liminal space between just being a couple and being parents–between something that was familiar and something that will be totally new. It can be the space between losing a job and getting another one. It can be things like “mid-life”, that odd period somewhere in your forties where you realize you are no longer “young”, where you see changes in your body, and you are asking questions again of what’s it all about?

This is actually a good term for something my wife and I have been experiencing. This is the year we enter our seventh decade, complete with Golden Buckeye cards, courtesy of the State of Ohio. A number of our high school and college friends have already retired. While I’m not there yet, we’ve noticed some interesting changes and new questions we are asking.

For one thing, we are becoming far more ruthless in deaccumulating. I was cleaning out a desk we are preparing to sell and discovered old notebooks from seminary and college that I haven’t looked at in 30 to 40 years. And for the first time, I had the courage to say–I don’t need to keep this. I also recently got rid of several boxes of books I realized I either would never read or never look at again. And I feel like we are just getting started.

In my work I’ve found myself moving from simply thinking about my own goals and career development to nurturing these in younger colleagues. While I still have challenging assignments and great ministry opportunities among the students and faculty with whom I work I am thinking more and more about encouraging and empowering others and handing off to a new generation of people in our organization. I’m really not intimidated by that–I want what we are doing to outlast my working years. I find myself thinking more about not simply ending work at some point but wanting to finish well–something older workers don’t always do. In particular, I don’t want to be the old crank!

I’ve found we’ve begun pursuing more avidly interests we just couldn’t consider during the peak years of work and being parents. And so we go painting, take photographs, write blogs and sing music. We’ve learned you can audit courses for free at Ohio public universities when you are sixty and are thinking about this. Health permitting, we expect to have a life after work and it is interesting to begin cultivating what that might be and asking what that will look like.

One thing about liminal spaces is that one is going from high def to low def. I really don’t know what life after work entirely will be like. One of the things we learned today is that it is very tempting to rush the answers to these questions rather than to spend some time lingering with the questions, which often leads to greater self-understanding and better answers. Low def is uncomfortable yet it can be a place for growth.

One would think we’d have life figured out by this point. Wrong! We’ve never been to this part of life before, other than watching parents and older friends go through it. In my faith, we talk about growing in Christ-likeness, or as I like to speak of it, growing into our “size Jesus” clothes (thank you for that image, Andrea!). I’m so glad I still have opportunities to learn and grow, even if it means new questions and uncertainties. It seems to me the only alternative is stagnation, and to me that would be to die before I’m dead! Liminal space seem far better.

First posted here on July 22, 2014.

Repost: Keeping Cool

Here’s a post that first appeared as part of my Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series on how we kept cool before the days of whole-house air conditioning in working class neighborhoods. Enjoy, and perhaps it will bring back memories!

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Maybe I’m thinking of this because it is a warm day and I’m grateful for our air conditioner. I’m reminded of the fact that growing up in working class Youngstown, almost none of our homes had air conditioners, so we had to find other ways to keep cool. Here’s ten ways I can think of that we kept cool:

1. Swimming at the local pool. For me it was Borts Pool on the West Side–for others it was Pemberton or North Side. We could get in for a dime for the whole afternoon. If your family was a bit more mobile, places like Yankee Lake or Pymatuming provided relief from the summer heat.

2. Your basement. Most homes had basements that were below ground and were considerably cooler.

3. A movie theater. Back then the theaters often advertised their air conditioning, especially in the summer. An afternoon double-feature, no matter how bad was often a cheap way to buy several hours of cool.

Newport Theater

4. A ride in a convertible with the top down. Yeah, you felt a bit road grimy afterwards, but sailing along with the breeze in your face felt great!

5. Your front porch. Lots of homes had front porches. Our had big green awnings that kept the porch shady all day and bushes on our western exposure to keep out the late afternoon sun. If there was any breeze at all, it was comfortable. Most evenings, that’s where you’d find my folks until the late night news.

6. A big electric fan often kept the house cool at night. Many of the older homes had windows that allow for decent air circulation. In our house, we’d have a fan on that would suck the hot air out a back window, pulling in the night air through the front.

Box fan

7. The DQ, Isaly’s or Handels would at least cool off our mouths.

8. During the day, there were popsicles which did the same thing. Double popsicles were great, except that if you split them and planned to eat both, you had to eat the first really quickly! I always like grape.

Popsicles!

9. Most of the downtown stores were air-conditioned, and there were always Strouss’ malts in their bargain basement!

10. Often while waiting to pick up newspapers for my paper route, we’d hang out at a nearby gas station with a pop machine–one that dispensed bottles. As long as we drank them on site, we didn’t need to leave a deposit–just drop them in the wood trays for the bottling company to pick up.

Air conditioning was a major expenditure that was beyond many of our family’s budgets back then. To replace the old heating systems in most of our homes with a heating and A/C unit would have been costly, and most of our homes weren’t insulated very well and so cooling would be costly. But we still found ways to stay relatively cool.

What were your favorite ways of staying cool?

This post first appeared here on July 26, 2014.