Don't Buy Stuff You Can't Afford

In light the global economic crisis, as it is being referred to, I figured I'd share a funny link to how individuals and families can't tackle the issue. The strategy, thanks to Saturday Night Live, is called "Don't Buy Stuff You Can't Afford". It's revolutionary, I know. (Sorry I couldn't find a version that could be uploaded to my blog).

Thanks Erik for the link...

Dependence on Sacrifice: A Lesson From My Little Boy

I’ve always believed that healthy relationships involve a degree of sacrifice to be successful. Being happily married for over five years has contributed to this understanding, as both Julie and I are continually learning how to best serve one another. Entering the realm of parenthood, however, has given me a whole new perspective on what means to sacrifice for someone else’s well being. You see, in marriage, individuals, while benefiting from the sacrifice of their spouse, are not totally dependant on that sacrifice for survival. We still have the freedom to be independent in areas of our lives (or at least we think we do!). This doesn’t mean we aren’t dependant on our spouse’s sacrifice, but that we can choose (for better or worse) if we are going to allow the other’s sacrificing love define who we are. Infants, however, don’t have the luxury of choosing their dependence on the sacrifice others. Their very survival depends on the sacrifice of their parents—the conscious choice to put your child’s needs above your own. As a new father, I find this new responsibility to sacrifice for my child both a great burden (am I willing to sacrifice enough for my son’s well being?) as well as a great honor (I have the privilege of influencing the identity of this little person). I anticipate the days, months, and years ahead of wrestling with how my son’s life is dependant on my sacrifice as his dad and humbly pray for the strength to appropriately place Landon’s life before my own.

What’s got me wondering from this notion of a child’s dependence his parent’s sacrifice is how it challenges our understanding of dependence throughout our lives. In terms of a baby, it’s easy to focus on their physiological dependence on their parents for survival, which obviously diminishes as they grow and mature and develop the ability to care for themselves. Character development, however, is harder to measure. When do we stop being dependant on others, such as our parents, for the shaping of our identity? Or do we require on ongoing dependence on others—dependence not unlike that of an infant and their parent—to help direct us along the path of who we truly are? Major life decisions, traumatic experiences, and simple day-to-day events bring a complexity to our lives that can be overwhelming to process if walked alone. Trying to make sense of our role as individuals in this complex world is a burden no isolated individual, in my opinion, can truly grasp. Belief in such autonomous freedom, quite simply, is an infantile fantasy. And so I think we are too hasty in associating age with independence, failing to see that our well being, like that of an infant, is dependent on the sacrifice of others for survival. As others sacrifice for us by walking alongside us and speaking wisdom into our experiences, our role is to accept our ongoing dependence on these people—the reality, in a way, that we never completely grow up.

Oh, and here’s a picture of Landon (Cuteness makes my sacrifice as a father so much easier!):


Landon Jacob Warkentin

Well, the wait is over! While 12 days overdue, Julie successfully (and courageously!) delivered Landon Jacob on Friday, September 26, at 2:02pm. He weighed in at a whopping 9 lbs, 10 oz. All I can say is: Julie is amazing! We're all doing well and adjusting to life at home. I look forward to sharing more in the future about my experience of fatherhood. Apparently it'll give me a new perspective on life (I think I already agree!)

Anticipation

As of this moment I am eagerly awaiting fatherhood, and with Julie three days overdue, the anticipation is mounting. As I was thinking about our current situation—awaiting our baby’s arrival—I realized that anticipation, even in expectation of good things, can be a frustrating emotion. At times happiness and excitement are unavoidable as we realize the inevitable arrival of our first child. Other times, however, impatience and annoyance at the fact we’re still waiting sets the tone for our anticipation (countless questions—“Is the baby here yet?”—are excellent for this!). Sometimes I just wish anticipation was a more consistent experience.

I think the frustration (besides the fact the baby isn’t here yet!) is due in part to the unknown nature of what we are anticipating. Is it a boy? Or a girl? Are we going be good parents? Oh, and will the baby look as good as us ;)! If we knew precisely what we were anticipating (like if Julie had planned a C-section 9 months ago like countless celebrities), chances are the frustration of positive and negative emotions that accompany our anticipation would decline immeasurably.

I think this mystery of anticipation extends beyond expectant parenthood to reveal our experience in much of life’s major milestones. The fact is, life is full of anticipating the unknowns, where no matter how prepared we are, the events of our lives are beyond our control. As frustrating as waiting can be, my past experience tells me that what were once unknowns are often the most valuable parts of my life. Things beyond my ability to control act as gifts which I can treasure instead of possessions I arrogantly possess. So as I excitedly and impatiently anticipate the gift of our child, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Six Random Facts About Me

Ok, after a considerable hiatus from the bloggersphere, Ryan has pricked my cyber-conscience, and lest I get plagued by a virus that erases my nearly completed thesis (by the end of August!?!), I figured I should comply and offer six random facts about me.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. Post the rules on your blog (copy and paste 1-6).
  3. Write 6 random things about yourself (see below).
  4. Tag 6 people at the end of your post and link to them.
  5. Let each person know they have been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
  6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Here goes:

1. I have never owned my own car. Our present wheels (a hip 98’ Cavalier) came with Julie as a part of her dowry ;)

2. I enjoy eating the cartilage off of chicken bones (no, I don’t suck the morrow!). Ever since my Grandpa Warkentin used to collect everyone’s chicken bones and crunch away at the head of the table, I have been inspired to do likewise in honor of his influence in my life.

3. My favorite band is R.E.M.

4. I’ve had a hole in one golfing and, yes, there were witnesses of my 104-yard shot of a lifetime

5. I’m left handed. Here’s some important information that has changed how I view my special status: “Everyone’s born right handed, but only few overcome it.”

6. I am going to be dad! Julie is due September 14 and we can’t wait to embark on this exciting phase of life. I am most looking forward Sunday afternoons together, raising him/her with a passion for exciting sports such as golf, curling, and tennis (ok, maybe some football too).


I tag: Lisa, Peter, Tim, Shannon, Vicky, and Naomi

Vacations are meant for reading…

Throughout my life, a highlight of any vacation has been the chance to read novels. Yet in anticipation of all the sightseeing, I wasn’t sure how much reading I would get done on our tour of Italy and Greece. Yet the hours spent in the air and on the rails, along with the early mornings due to jet-lag, I found myself reading quite a lot – to the tune of 9 books in fact. Anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some reflections (and rating!) on what I encountered. I’ll go through them in the order I read them, although there was no particular method to my reading-madness, as I ended up reading all of Julie’s books as well, along with buying a few from the limited English selection available to us in stores. Here goes:

1. The Shack – William P. Young

I think the fanfare surrounding this book took away some of my enjoyment as it was difficult to read without all those voices influencing my experience. Oh well, what can you do? What I enjoyed about the book, was that in exploring one man’s experience of God following the tragic loss of his daughter, Young provides us with a poignant glimpse into the loving relationship of the Trinity and how that love manifests itself to us in the midst of our suffering. The human longing to connect with God in our sorrow and emptiness is something we can all relate to some degree. Additionally, Young makes an abstract theological construct available to people who would otherwise not engage something as complex as the trinity. The writing itself may not be anything especially amazing, but I think the chord the story strikes in the heart of the reader is what makes this book a success.

-Rating: 3.5/5

2. The Book of the Dun Cow – Walter Wangerin Jr.

I picked this up on the sale rack at the Regent bookstore, and was glad I did. I’ve always enjoyed narratives that portray the battle of good and evil through the eyes of the animal kingdom. Told from the perspective of a rooster’s leadership of a farm yard, Wangerin’s story is a classic example of this struggle. Through a tense sequence of events, the book climaxes in a stunning representation of how sacrifice is the ultimate victory over evil. The only critique is that animal/fantasy genre (right term?) is a bit predictable, but aren’t all classic good vs. evil stories predictable?
-Rating: 3.5/5

3. Same Place, Same Things – Tim Gautreaux

Another book off the sale rack, this one is a collection of short stories that all take place in the southern state of Louisiana. Most of the stories present the dark realities of southern rural life, and while too predictable (most stories took had an inevitable depressing ending), Gautreaux does well in showing that even the most mundane context can’t escape the complex reality of sadness and death.
-Rating: 3/5

4. A Discovery of Strangers – Rudy Wiebe

This was definitely my favorite book of the vacation. Based on the events surrounding a British expedition into Northern Canada in the 1800’s, Wiebe takes an historical record and weaves a beautiful narrative that displays not only the hardships of Northern life, but the complex relationships that developed between the aboriginal natives and the British explorers. I especially appreciated the story’s excellent exposition of the challenges present in the clash of two extremely different cultures, while at the same time was grateful that this representation did not take precedence over the characters and the narrative. What I like so much about Wiebe is his ability not just to tell a story, but to tell a story that has meaning on so many different levels. The beautiful descriptions of Northern Canada, the intricacy of the woven storylines and characters, and the underlying cultural critique all combine to form a great book.
-Rating: 5/5

5. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

This well-known story was better than I expected. Not only does Golden provide incredible detail of the Geisha-culture in war-era Japan, but manages to give insight into the life of individual women and the challenges they faced. Hard to believe those things really happened!
-Rating: 3.5/5

6. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

From the author of the acclaimed Kite Runner, comes this second novel from Hosseini which presents the lives of two woman in war-torn Afghanistan, relating how their paths cross and how they come to rely on one another to navigate the suffering and abuse they both experience throughout their lives. I appreciated Hosseini’s ability to portray, at times graphically, the bleakness of life for many women during the reign of the Taliban. While I do wonder how much our North American views of freedom and personhood play into novels such as these, the women’s journey of suffering, sacrifice, and perseverance is one which captured my attention, even if in a troubling sort of way as I considered its relevance in our world today.
-Rating: 4/5

7. Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer

This book recounts the tragic events that took place on Mt. Everest in the spring of 1996. The only reason I enjoyed this novel at all is because in high school I did a very small amount of mountaineering and can relate to the culture somewhat. The problem is that the book reads like an extended Reader Digest story, and considering the account is true and was written only months after the event, I was left feeling a little bit discouraged in terms of honoring the lives of those who died. Yet, tragedy sells because part of us (myself included) are drawn towards it. It is what it is…
-Rating: 2/5

8. A Certain Justice – P.D. James

Nothing like a British crime novel for a change of pace to my vacation reading! While I haven’t read a considerable amount in this genre, I must say that reading my first novel by P.D. James was a very enjoyable experience. Her writing style, especially choice of words, stuck out to me as something a little more significant than what one would usually encounter from mass-produced paperbacks. Accompany that with the usual twists and turns of a mystery novel and the fun task of guessing “who did it?”, and I would definitely read another James novel if the opportunity arose.
-Rating: 4/5

9. JPod Douglas Coupland

I’d been meaning to read this book for a while, so when I saw it in a London bookstore, I figured it to be a suitable last read for the journey home to Vancouver (also the book’s setting!). The story itself is a bit strange, but considering it portrays the complex lives of postmodern young adult professionals in Vancouver, the strangeness seems somewhat appropriate. The setting is a small department (“Jpod”) in a videogame production company and the characters are the motley crew that make up the department, with particular attention paid to one young man and his wacky family. Less a story and more of a lens into the quirkiness of Westcoast culture, the book is humorous throughout and in my opinion pretty accurate in portraying the types of situations (although a bit extreme) young adults encounter in their developing professional and personal lives. Coupland ability to blend humor, story, and cultural commentary makes for an entertaining read.
-Rating: 4/5

Bonus Book: Rick Steves’ Italy 2008

This was our travel bible while in Italy and I would highly recommend it to anyone who tours Italy or any of the other countries Steves writes about. His insider information and ratings of what to see and not to see were consistently accurate. I’m not sure what we would have done without it – likely paid more and seen less!?!
-Rating: 5/5


Wandering Italy and Greece

We returned from our three week tour of Italy and Greece, a holiday Julie refers to as our “babymoon” as it was our big trip before adding to our family in September.

We had such a great time touring around Italy enjoying all the history in the form of art and architecture, and just when we were toured-out, we got to go relax on the beaches of the Greek Islands. Oh, and we did a whirlwind 4-hour walk of central London on our stopover on the way home. Here are some picks that follow our journey (this is just a minor sampling):


Milan

Me on the roof of the main church in Milan

A creepy statue of a guy wearing his skin as a robe


Venice


The Grand Canal

Me in the Venice rain

Our main mode of transportation


Florence


Julie enjoying some gelato

The replica David, as the real one is inside and you can't photo it


My kind of truck!



Cinque Terre

Our 5th anniversary dinner

My favorite meal of the whole trip (black and white spaghetti with clams)

The views of the villages are amazing


St. Francis and his dog



Rome

Trevi fountain at night

Julie and the Coliseum

The bowels of the Coliseum

A bunch of old stuff

Inside the Pantheon

A dome in the Vatican

A ceiling in the Vatican

St. Peter's Basilica


Santorini, Greece

Julie and the view (this whole island is lava rock from a volcano across the bay)


Our island transport

Red Rock Beach

Architectural creativity is unreal


Paros, Greece

Julie loving the beach

My beautiful wife - my favorite picture of the holiday



Athens

Julie and the view from the Acropolis

Parthenon at sunset


Acropolis at night


London

Julie at the gates of Buckingham Palace

The two happy tourists with Big Ben and the parliament in the background

Westminster Abby at sunset

The Narrative Reality of our Character

Ok, back with some thesis thoughts, following my previous discussion about Stanley Hauerwas’s character ethics.

Making the assertion that we need to recognize the relationship between our identity and actions expands our view of ethics to include the whole individual. The problem, however, is that character ethics can still be interpreted individualistically, as individuals simply strive to find their ‘true self,’ an illusive reality disconnected from everyday life. As I summarized earlier, this is problematic for Hauerwas.

One solution that Hauerwas proposes is to identify how our character as individuals is contingent upon the narrative reality of our lives, where we all have a story.

In terms of narrative, Hauerwas borrows much of his construct from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who stresses the narrative identity of individuals. Essentially, every person embodies a story – an “enacted narrative.” In the words of MacIntyre, narrative refers to the “concept of a self whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end.” Hauerwas takes this idea to correct the abstract nature of character by itself, as now individual identity is rooted in the unique stories that we all find ourselves. In this sense, there is no ‘true self’ apart from the contingency of our historic being.

Freedom, then, is not freedom from something, like the many outside influences that form who we are. Rather, in recognizing the narrative reality of our lives, our freedom is to be something – to be people who accept our history, and in the case of Christianity, accept our formation through the Christian narrative. As Hauerwas relates,

Our ‘freedom,’ therefore, is dependent on our being initiated into a truthful narrative, as in fact it is the resource from which we derive the power to ‘have character’ at all. Put simply, our ability to ‘have character’ does not require the positing of a transcendental freedom, rather it demands a recognition of the narrative nature of our existence.

When it comes to ethics, then, our actions can only be evaluated in relation to the entire narrative story of our character formation. Referred to as the “intelligibility of action,” behavior is understood in relation to complex narrative context from which each action arises. As a result, any attempt to assign moral value to our behavior must take into account the related factors of our particular narratives. Morality, in this manner, is never a matter of ahistorical analysis.

I find narrative ethics convincing in this regard. It acknowledges the complexities of life and morality. It chooses patient discernment of each particular context as opposed to making generic value statements about specific behavior, which often ignores the person related to that behavior. In our world where people are broken and hurting, I guess this just seems a little more realistic to me…

At the same time, narrative alone does not solve the individualistic approach to character ethics. Next post, I will discuss the focal point of Hauerwas’s Christian ethics – the necessity for community.

Cultural Commentary via Calvin and Hobbes…

In my busyness I thought I would share some wisdom from Calvin and Hobbes:




40 years ago...

40 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. This song and video is a stirring tribute. (h/t Mike)

Beginning with character – who we are and what we do


And so I continue to overview some of the ideas from Hauerwas…

In beginning to address the challenges of individualism (see last post), Hauerwas proposes that Christian ethics should be understood in relation to individual’s character. Hence the term: character ethics. Essentially, character is simply referring to individual identity. In other words, put quite bluntly, “We are our character!”

The problem, too often, is that personal identity is understood as some sort of abstract notion in reference to our ‘true self,’ where the true essence of our character is somehow disconnected from the moral choices we make. At times, this view of character has been referred to as the “onion peel view of the self,” assuming that we have many peripheral layers of ‘stuff’ we must transcend in order to finally encounter our true self. The morality of our actions, as a result, is separated from who we really are. Certain behaviors, therefore, are judged through some sort of value grid of right and wrong, depending on the context; but essentially the person is separate from the action. For example, the assertion that abortion is wrong, from this viewpoint, is forced to argue specifically based on the objective facts of whether or not the termination of a fetus is morally right or wrong. The action itself, not the person performing the action, is what determines the moral judgment.

The problem with this is that fails to acknowledge the complex relation between a person’s character – their identity – and the actions they perform. What Hauerwas suggests, then, is that ethics must focus on the relationship between our character and actions in order to navigate the complexities of the various ethical situations our lives encounter. A concept he refers to is the “moral agency” of individuals, which basically asserts that all people produce an effect in the world through their actions. The character of every person, basically, is reflected in their actions. Actions, then, are not morally objective based on their results; but rather reflect the identity of individuals – the agent. So when Hauerwas suggests that “our character is the qualification of our agency,” he is saying that actions can be evaluated only in relation to the individuals performing them. The goal of character ethics, then, is to examine the relationship between peoples’ identity and their actions as a way of understanding the multifaceted levels moral judgment always has to navigate. Back to the example of abortion, then, the implication is that to assess the morality of the action is far more than just the end result, but necessarily includes understanding the context and motives of the people involved.

What is helpful with this approach, is that in a culture of impersonal interaction where moral evaluation usually only takes place when others impinge on our personal rights and freedoms, an awareness of the impact our identity has on the morality of our actions (& others’) can be helpful. Specifically, it provides insight into the challenges that face us regarding the difficult task of seeking moral unity in whatever situation we are faced with (ie. church, family, government). The implication, it seems to me, is that we actually have to get to know people for ethical living to make sense… Yikes!

This part of the discussion only reflects on a small portion of Hauerwas’s earlier work, so as I continue in future posts, you will see how the categories of narrative and community challenge character ethics in several important ways.

(For further reading, see especially, Character and the Christian Life)


Hauerwas and Individualism

Well, for anyone curious as to why all of the silence on here lately, don’t worry – I am still here. I’ve been busy, however, working on my thesis project. Considering this process is taking up most of writing energy, I’ll admit, blogging has been sparse. In an attempt to maintain some level of blogging production, therefore (and to possibly peak peoples’ interest in what I am writing about), I thought I would spend some time over a few posts to discuss aspects of my project.

First, here’s my catchy title (I may have to spice it up at some point – we’ll see)

“Individualism & Community:
Stanley Hauerwas & the Mennonite Brethren”

The motivation for my project has been to respond to the challenge of individualism in North American culture – in particular, individualism in Christian ethics. Typically, individualist ethics believes the autonomous individual, separated from the accountability of community, has the adequate rational and moral capabilities for engaging ethical issues. I am not so sure…

The primary source for my project is Stanley Hauerwas, a leading voice in the disciplines of ethics and ecclesiology in North America and someone concerned with the impact of individualism on Christian ethics. Hauerwas is critical of the ethical approach that stresses “freedom, autonomy, and choice as the essence of the moral life” (The Peaceable Kingdom). It is wrong, according to Hauerwas, to approach ethics with a focus on the individual’s ability to extract universal principles from scripture and use them to direct moral reasoning. Basically, he has little confidence in the human ability for autonomous ethical reasoning, as the variety of ‘right’ answers to complicated ethical issues is too much pressure to place solely on the shoulders of individuals. Hauerwas argues that the North American church too often succumbs to this approach when understanding Christian ethics.

Hauerwas’s argument is that individualism wrongly detaches individuals from being formed ethically in the historical contexts and communities of which they are a part. Theologically, individualism fails to recognize the centrality of community in ethical formation, witnessed to in the biblical narrative. Hauerwas argues that being able to approach ethics ignoring our particular historical contexts does not make sense, as all people live in particular times and places which shape who they are. Too often, laments Hauerwas, “we fail to see the narratives that in fact constitute our ‘autonomy’” (A Community of Character).

Well, this only sets the stage for my paper, and my subsequent posts will discuss how Hauerwas’s view of ethics in the context of community can address this individualism. Later, I will discuss the implications of his work specifically for Mennonite Brethren.

Upping the Ante with Rob Bell

Here are some sobering comments on the role of the church in North American culture:

If Jesus comes to town and things don’t get better, then we have to ask some hard questions.

I think the problem is that when people say ‘church’ many mean religious goods ad services where you come and there’s a nice inspiring talk, good coffee in the back, snappy music and everything ends up fine. Jesus speaks of His people who are willing to suffer and die so that the world can be healed – that’s an entirely different proposition.

(Rob Bell, interview in Relevant Magazine – sorry, there is no link to the interview)

“I see a people” – An Ecumenical Vision

In the absence of motivation to blog anything original, I thought I would share the following quote:

Right now we remain largely a scattered people. This has been the condition of the Church of Jesus Christ for a good many years. But a new thing is coming. God is gathering his people once again, creating of them an all-inclusive community of loving persons with Jesus Christ as the community’s prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant. This community is breaking forth in multiplied ways and varied forms.

I see it happening, this great new gathering of the people of God. I see an obedient disciplined, freely gathered people who know in our day the life and powers of the kingdom of God.

I see a people of cross and crown, of courageous action and sacrificial love.

I see a people who are combining evangelism with social action, the transcendent Lordship of Jesus with the suffering servant Messiah.

I see a people who are buoyed up by the vision of Christ’s everlasting rule, not only imminent on the horizon, but already bursting forth in our midst.

I see a peopleI see a people… even thought it feels as if I am peering through a glass darkly.

I see a country pastor from Indiana embracing an urban priest from New Jersey and together praying for the peace of the world. I see a people.

I see a Catholic monk from the hills of Kentucky standing alongside a Baptist evangelist from the streets of Los Angeles and together offering up a sacrifice of praise. I see a people.

I see social activists from the urban centers of Hong Kong joining with Pentecostal preachers from the barrios of Sao Paulo and together weeping over the spiritually lost and the plight of the poor. I see a people.

I see laborers from Soweto and landowners from Pretoria honoring and serving each other out of reverence for Christ. I see a people.

I see Hutu and Tutsi, Serb and Croat, Mongol and Han Chinese, African-American and Anglo, Latino and Native American all sharing and caring and loving one another. I see a people.

I see a people, I tell you, a people from every race and nation and tongue and stratum of society, joining hearts and hands and minds and voices declaring,

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound –
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

(Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water)

Unfamiliarity with the Particular

In the most recent issue of my denomination's magazine, the MB Herald, I contributed an article titled, “Should Christian’s Own Sport Utility Vehicles?” You can check it out here. Subsequent to the publication I have had several conversations about the question in the title. Particularly interesting has been the online discussion here.

Well, self-promotion aside, these discussions have been quite revealing as to what I see as an unfamiliarity Christians have, myself included, with discussions around specific issues related to materialism. Responses to my article have ranged from expressions of frustration for feeling personally attacked, to uncomfortable jokes about SUV’s, to confusion over my point, to environmental crusading, to serious wrestling with the issue of materialism in general.

I think all of these responses in one way or another express a similar refrain, “So what?” Not in an unintelligent, who cares kind of way, but in a serious frustration for not knowing where to even begin to address specific issues such as this one. Essentially, asking the question about SUV’s has left many feeling handcuffed regarding the issue of materialism, in this case the ethics of vehicle choice. I am not sure, however, if that is something to lament.

Why I say this is because I think a major factor for the expressed frustration is the fact that this type of dialogue is so unfamiliar for Christian communities. The reason is that we are more accustomed to working with abstract issues. For example, the generic term “materialism” can be helpful to point out our propensity to over-consume our resources, a concept we can then apply to our lives as we see fit. It’s not too difficult to nod in agreement – as long as it doesn’t get too personal.

When the discussion begins, however, with a particular topic, one that we are all implicated in (i.e. vehicle choice), we are automatically forced to provide some sort of account, even if just to ourselves, about the ethical choices we have made for that particular situation. Naturally, this makes us uncomfortable (perhaps even angry at certain article writers :). I guess what I am trying to say, and what I have realized through writing and interacting with this article, is that when ethical issues hit close to home – when they become personal – having conversations with others becomes much more difficult as it requires us to acknowledge to them the discomfort we are experiencing.

I know for myself this type of relational transparency is far from my typical experience when it comes to issues surrounding materialism, and because I prefer to remain comfortable in my faith experience, I find it much easier to avoid particular issues such as this. All this to say, I think we need to be challenged towards more authentic ethical interaction, even if it means a little more vulnerability on our part. How this looks? Well, I’m still working on that…

All in all, publishing my thoughts has definitely been a unique (and vulnerable) experience and I have appreciated the graciousness people have expressed in the various conversations I have had.

NOTE: For anyone thinking I am personally skirting the issue of materialism by dealing with a subject (SUV’s) that doesn’t apply to me, I want to assure you that many other specific issues are not so easy for me to distance myself from (ie. housing, recreation, just to name a couple). Basically, I am not saying I am off the hook!

Preparation & Repentance

A few days back my Lenten wondering/wandering brought me to Luke 3. This passage tells of John the Baptist’s ministry, a ministry that called people towards preparation for the coming of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Integral to this ministry was John’s ministry of baptism, a baptism which he explicitly states as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” – a baptism that echoed the prophetical witness to a time of preparation for the coming Messiah (Lk 3:3-6).

As I continue to reflect on Lent, a time to practice this preparation for the anticipated Messiah, I am struck by the notion of repentance in the context of preparation. For John’s followers, and all Jews, his ministry of baptism of repentance would have had major political significance – by political I mean that what he was asking, essentially, was allegiance to God’s kingdom. An allegiance, however, not dominated by militaristic strategies or pious moral reform. Rather, the allegiance John was calling for was about accepting a radical new identity, an identity placed in the turning away (repenting) from the political expectations of that culture – an identity placed firmly in the expectation of the coming Messiah – an identity that involved generosity, honesty, and contentment (vv. 10-14) as the practical form for preparing to “see the salvation of God” (v. 6).

In terms of Lent, then, repentance understood as the acceptance of a new identity, one that is formed by an expectation for the coming kingdom of God, insinuates that preparation not be taken lightly. To make the claim “Jesus is Lord” can be an utterance of mere sentiment without a consideration of what this identifying statement means for who we are. In a world of alternative visions of God’s kingdom, many watered down for appeal instead of faithfulness, the practice of repentance is a sobering reminder to continually prepare ourselves for accepting the implications of aligning with the kingdom Jesus has inaugurated.

May our Lenten preparation be more than outward practices or inward reflections, but a time of identity reorientation, of repentance, always having in mind the Messiah for whom we prepare.

Story-formed Lent

In a recent post, I made the following comment:

In my view, what makes the Christian life an intelligible possibility that can make sense of challenges we face, requires us to constantly be reminded of the story of God’s faithfulness – shown in the stories of Israel, exemplified in the entire ministry of Jesus, and continued through the presence of the Spirit in our lives and communities.

In my observation of Lent I have decided to practice the idea of story-formed living by reading through the gospel of Luke. I’m calling this “story-formed Lent.”

Lent is supposed to be a time of preparation for the Easter celebration, recognizing that the Christian life does not just involve participation in the victory of Christ, but involves suffering with Christ as well. To be completely honest, sharing in the suffering of Christ is not something I am particularly comfortable with or even sure I am required to do (didn’t his death on the cross negate suffering?). Yet I am challenged by the reality that God’s kingdom, while initiated by Christ, has not fully come, hence to continual suffering our world experiences. So while I place my hope in the ultimate victory of Christ, our broken world necessarily calls me to acknowledge the suffering I participate in.

And this leads to Lent – a time to actively reflect on the suffering of Christ and tangibly participate in that suffering. This is where story-formed Lent can be a helpful approach to entering into this participation. The question I am asking myself as I read through Luke is “How does this story form my understanding of Lent?” So far, the overwhelming theme in my brief bit of reading has been that participation in Christ’s suffering is no small thing, requiring allegiance of my whole being to Christ’s lordship. Reading the early parts of Jesus’ ministry, there is no sense of flippant or half-hearted participation. In a culture that assumes religion is primarily about self-fulfillment, a concept we are all implicated in adopting, this is a sobering picture of the Christian faith.

The purpose of Lent, then, is a chance to consider deeply the implications of our identity of Christians, an identity that not only reaps the benefits of Christ’s salvation, but participates in his suffering. In light of this, I believe a story-formed approach to Lent allows us the space to understand what participation in the life of Jesus means. A time of preparation can seem redundant when we know the ending, but considering the story as I am seeing it in Luke, Christianity without preparation is reduced to a cultural and religious affiliation, not a life transforming participation.

Once again, Lent is upon us

Once again I have been reflecting on Lent and wondering how to integrate this historic tradition into my faith practice (see my thoughts from last year here and here). In this consideration, I came across the following Lenten prayer:

Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ dwelling within them.
Fast from emphasis on differences; feast on the unity of all life.
Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.
Fast from words that pollute; feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.
Fast from worry; feast on trust.
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from negatives; feast on affirmatives.
Fast from unrelenting pressures; feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from hostility; feast on nonviolence.
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from personal anxiety; feast on eternal truth.
Fast from discouragement; feast on hope.
Fast from facts that depress; feast on truths that uplift.
Fast from lethargy; feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from suspicion; feast on truth.
Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from idle gossip; feast on purposeful silence.

Gentle God, during this season of fasting and feasting, gift us with Your Presence, so we can be gift to others in carrying out your work. Amen.

Where I find myself overcome from some of the challenges in this prayer, I hope the time of Lent can be a period of growth towards not only recognizing these struggles, but also working towards constructively countering them in my everyday life. I realize that the transformation that this prayer suggests is far more complex than the simple utterance of ‘fasting and feasting,’ but at the same time I am encouraged when I remind myself of the source of this transformation – the person of Jesus Christ to whom this whole season points. It is this reminder that the practice of Lent offers, a reminder I believe we all could benefit from.

Blessings, then, on your Lenten endeavors!

Reality Check: The Truthfulness of Movies

Over the last several years I have found myself increasingly interested in movies. This interest has led me to reflect on what it is I like about films and how they impact the way I see the world (if they do at all).

Watching movies is by no means a formulaic experience, as I find myself engaging movies in a variety of different ways, particularly depending on the genre of the film. For example, certain films are primarily there to entertain, working as a sort of escape from the realities of everyday life, where I catch a glimpse into the often unrealistic, but nonetheless enjoyable experiences of various characters (i.e. Dumb & Dumber).

At other times movies encourage an artistic appreciation, as even while a little off track from the mainstream films, the level of creativity they display demands recognition. Or even other times, I find myself interested in films as a form of cultural engagement, especially if ‘everybody’s seeing it,’ ensuring I won’t be left out of the next conversation on the latest films.

More recently, however, I have found myself engaging films in a different manner, a way that applies to most movie genres if you ask me. I am calling this type of movie watching the ‘reality check’ approach. What I mean by this is that I think all movies give a window into some aspect of the human experience (good ones at least). While often over-exaggerated in portrayal, I find that at certain points in a good movie, I find myself in agreement, saying, “Yup, that’s the way the world is.”

This form of movie watching struck me most recently when I saw the highly acclaimed film, There Will Be Blood (not recommended for the faint of heart). Daniel Plainview is the main character, acted brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, who is driven by an overwhelming desire for success in the oil boom of the early 20th century, a success to be achieved at all costs. At one point in the film, in a rare moment of vulnerable self-reflection, Daniel comments on how it is his pent-up hate for everyone around him that ‘protects’ him from weakness, allowing him the strength to literally succeed over and above everyone else. I was struck by the truthfulness of his statement, exposing the loneliness that accompanies, or even is required, for power-hungry individuals to achieve success. In this moment of honest vulnerability, Daniel reveals a sobering truth of the human experience. As I watched this scene, then, I encountered a ‘reality check,’ a glimpse into the truthfulness of our world. To the creators and actors of There Will Be Blood, I am grateful.

As a Christian, the idea of recognizing truthfulness in the stories being told around us, through film in this case, witnesses to the formative nature that truthful story-telling has in our lives. As we Christians claim the biblical narrative as the story that forms us, the smaller stories we encounter in our cultural experience compliment the story-forming nature of our faith. Therefore, anytime I am offered a ‘reality check’ through film, I take it as an opportunity to be impacted by the truthfulness that I hope will continue to form me as a person and the world I live in.

Story-formed living

I realize the Christmas season has past, but this morning I was reading from Luke and was struck by Mary’s song of response after being blessed by Elizabeth (1:39-56). What impressed me most was how in this time of immense change in Mary’s life, where the course of her life has been drastically altered, she finds solace in reciting a story – the story of God’s faithfulness:

And Mary said:
"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers."

Stories form who we are, both positively and negatively, depending on which story we choose to inform our identity. For Mary, it is the reminder of God’s faithfulness not just to her, but throughout Israel’s history that allows her to make sense of the sensational situation she finds herself in.

Too often, Christians limit the story-forming experience only to their own personal lives, basing the testimony of God’s faithfulness on personal well-being. But what happens when personal well-being is an elusive reality for extended periods of time? What happens when certain situations place you on the fringes of your community and completely alone, which is exactly what happened to Mary? This is where I believe we need a story that is bigger than ourselves, something that Mary rightly realizes.

In my view, what makes the Christian life an intelligible possibility that can make sense of challenges we face, requires us to constantly be reminded of the story of God’s faithfulness – shown in the stories of Israel, exemplified in the entire ministry of Jesus, and continued through the presence of the Spirit in our lives and communities.

Eschatology – Or, why I am not worried about December 21, 2012.

Eschatology” is word that is frequently misused, misunderstood, or simply ignored (see the wikipedia link for what I mean).

Every once in while I enjoy entertaining myself by watching a few minutes of the ‘compelling’ program of ‘prominent’ Bible ‘scholar’ Jack Van Impe. His specialty is predicting how current events relate to biblical prophecy, particularly pertaining to the end of the world. Apparently the latest doomsday prediction is December 21, 2012, which is based on the Mayan calendar (I guess the Bible has been deemed ‘unreliable’ for specific dates after so many faulty predictions). Nothing like a little fear to motivate faith, eh!?!

Eschatology, of the Van Impe variety, is concerned with the specific details of history’s end, often relying on overly literal readings of prophetic passages. I think it’s pretty clear to say that this would fall into the category of a misuse and misunderstanding of eschatology.

Likely influenced by this type of guess-work, coupled with the challenge of understanding the apparent complexities of biblical prophecy such as that found in the book of Revelation, eschatology is most often simply ignored as a relevant aspect of our faith.

Over the past few years I have come to realize that this often feared topic is anything but scary or confusing. Rather, in my opinion, eschatology is a concept essential to providing an intelligible and authentic Christian faith.

Rather than limiting eschatology to the end of history, an alternative view sees the ministry of Jesus as the inauguration of God’s kingdom – the beginning of the ongoing-end so to speak (N.T. Wright has much to say on this). In this light, eschatology is still related to the ‘end times,’ except the end times are already here, begun with Jesus. While this will not be completely realized until Jesus’ return, whenever that will be, it does mean Jesus’ life signifies a sort of new era for what it means to follow God.

Living eschatologically, then, means living in the realization that aspects of God’s kingdom can already be realized now, particularly through following the example of Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas comments that Jesus illustrates “the way the world is meant to be – and thus those who follow him become a people of the last times, the people of the new age” (The Peaceable Kingdom). Eschatology, therefore, is a hopeful word, inspiring us to participate in areas of this world where we see this ‘new age’ being realized.

So, what is going to happen on December 21, 2012? I don’t have a clue…