What the heck…I won an award already? (4)

Yesterday,  shortly before heading out to Brothers’ Pizza for lunch, I quickly checked Facebook.  Imagine my shock upon learning my blog had won an award.  Specifically, Jessica Rowles Ramsey gave me and my blog a “Sunshine Award”.  Thank you!  So far as I can tell, there are NO cash prizes nor will I immediately rocket to blogging fame.  At least, I hope that isn’t the end result.  Jessica was initially responding to her receiving the same affirmation from a friend who mentioned her blog (see below).  The idea, and I like this because it serves multiple good causes, is to answer a few simple questions in your blog and then mention bloggers you follow and would recommend to others.  Oh, yes, one is also to include the “Sunshine Logo”.  I will do my best with my limited computer skills. And the questions are:

Favorite Color.  This is something of a challenge.  I am color blind; and, therefore, I have no clue as to what I see.  When people learn I can’t distinguish blue/purple and green/brown they often ask what may be the silliest question ever asked: “So, what color does blue look like to you?”  Honestly, how would I know?  I usually respond, “Well, I don’t know.  I just lump it into what I like to think of as the Blurple color family.”

Favorite Number. This is an odd one, but not the oddest, as you will see below.  Still, I have an answer.  21:  the number Roberto Clemente wore during his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Oh my, that guy could play the game.  Second choice: 9.  Alan Shearer wore that number and played for Newcastle.  BTW, he holds the record for goals scored in the English Premier League: 260.  The second place player?  Andrew Cole with 187.  Yeah.  Not even close really.

Favorite Animal.  The answer here is the lowly and misunderstood pig. I have great affection for the marginalized even when it comes to the animal kingdom.  The average pig is smarter than the average dog, and they are actually “clean” animals.  Given the choice of wallowing in mud or clean cool water a pig will pick the water.  The reason they wallow?  They can’t perspire and they need the liquid to evaporate and cool themselves down.

Favorite non-alcoholic drink.  Milk.  The stuff you purchase at the grocery store is acceptable, but the milk produced by Apple Valley Creamery, www.applevalleycreamery.com/home.php , is amazing.  And they deliver to our door!  If you live in the Mechanicsburg/Dillsburg area, check them out.

Facebook or Twitter.  Really?  How can you say anything of substance in 140 characters?  I predict Twitter will further lead to the decline of American society…as if we weren’t doing a fair job on that front prior to the creation of Twitter.

My Passion.  Passion?  That is a rather intimidating word.  It kinda makes me think of sure and certain death if I didn’t have it…like air.  I am definitely passionate about a steady and ample supply of air.  Let’s change the word to “interest”.  In that case, I really enjoy collecting old milk bottles.  See favorite non-alcoholic drink above.  It starts to make sense, right?  Perhaps I will write a blog about collecting milk bottles.

Getting or Giving Gifts.  Well, considering the fact that I am usually quite clueless as to what to give other people, I guess I’ll pick “getting.”  It is easier.

Favorite Pattern. Isn’t this odder than favorite number?  I think the answer is the vertical black and white stripes of Newcastle’s home jersey.  I admit I may have totally misunderstood the question.

Favorite Day of the Week.  Saturday mornings from mid-August to early May is the winner.  That is when English Premier League teams play.  Saturday, in general, is when Messiah College sports teams play.  On this point, I am rather partial to Saturday afternoons when my sons and their fellow swimmers are in the college pool.  Saturday evenings are good also when my little soccer buddies are scampering around Shoemaker Field.  BTW, they beat Division I Bucknell University this past Saturday evening.  I was happy.

Favorite Flower.  I am going to cheat, and say redbud trees.  A tree isn’t a flower, but redbud trees have wonderful flowers on them.  AND I am told they are purple.

As for the recommended blogs, I must admit I am so new to the blogosphere (is that a word?), and I don’t religiously follow any bloggers.  I have, however, found the following people to be engaging and thoughtful.

Jessica Rowles Ramsey’s “Tuning this Life” http://tuningthislife.wordpress.com/

Shawn Smucker’s “Shawn Smucker” http://shawnsmucker.com/

Matt Gorkos’ “Ramblin Rev” http://ramblingrev-mgorkos.blogspot.com/2012/04/chapter-1-part-2.html

Scott McKnight’s “Jesus Creed”  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/

Byron Borger’s “Hearts and Minds Book Notes”  http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/booknotes/

Thanks for reading.  Do your best to remain calm, but be warned the next blog is number 5, and that means hamsters will be mentioned.

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Yeah, I’m prone to make poor decisions. (3)

Over the Easter weekend I made an important and foolish decision: I agreed to play golf with complete strangers.  I have NO idea what I was thinking.  I love the game; but, despite my cultural heritage and genetic links to the homeland, it is painfully clear the game does not love me.  I usually play with my three friends, Dick, Jim and Ron, at a course so far out of the way that no one with any real duffing skills goes there.  The course is our speed.  Walt, the owner and designer, decided he wasn’t “making it” as a farmer, and so he turned the farm into a golf course.  At one point there were only thirteen holes.  Thirteen.  And next to the second fairway is a horse pasture.  I am not making this up.  It is my kinda course.

Like I said, I have no idea what I was thinking.  Perhaps I was inspired that some guy named “Bubba” had just won the Masters.  If a “Bubba” can win that tournament, I guess I figured I could play with strangers.  Another reason for that fateful decision is this: I felt sorry for my nephew, Eric.  I was watching Newcastle, my soccer team, play Bolton, his team.  On Saturday mornings between mid-August and mid-May I sit in the living room watching the Fox Soccer channel with my laptop on so I can follow the other EPL games…and check Facebook.  Early in the game Eric updated his Facebook status informing readers he needed people to enter the “Second Annual Push the Rock” ministry golf outing fundraiser.  When he posted that status Bolton was doing okay, not great, but they were holding their own against a far superior team.  Lacking confidence in Newcastle, I wrote, “If Newcastle wins today, I will be part of your group.”  I was joking and toying with him.  Seemingly Newcastle had been toying with Bolton as well.  The final score was 2-0, and at the end of the game Newcastle was challenging for a top five spot, and Bolton was still fighting to keep from being relegated.  As I said, I felt sorry for Eric.  He’s a great guy working for a very good international sports ministry organization.  He just can’t be trusted to pick a high quality soccer team to follow.

So, here I am a few days later trying to salvage a little personal dignity knowing full well there will be little or no personal dignity on the day of the tournament.  To make matters worse I just learned Corie, Eric’s wife, will be part of our group.  I really enjoy Corie, but for some reason she mercilessly picks on me.  I have no idea why that is the case.  I have never pestered her.  So, in addition to playing that infernal game with strangers, I am also playing with Corie, who so far as I can tell is a gifted athlete.  At least, she played soccer at the collegiate level with a respectable program.  I am praying the two sports are sufficiently different that she will be as bad as me.  If not, I will claim my advanced years are the reason “I got beat by a girl.”

I wish I was as good as Bubba Watson or Tiger Woods or Arnie Palmer or Tom Morris, Jr. or Tom Morris, Sr.  Well, not father and son Morris, they are long dead.  But, you know what I mean.  I look at great golfers and think, “How do they do that?”  I am just a clown when I pick up a golf club.  The first time I golfed I hit a barn.  The second time I golfed I hit a house so hard you could hear the impact over the noise of a circular saw cutting two by fours.  After that outing I took a break from golf and moved to Kenya for a year.  Literally, I left the country.  Upon returning my friends announced they found the perfect course for me.  There were no large buildings for me to hit.  Then one of them pointed out that the fifth hole had that maintenance shed to the left and behind the tee-area.  But there was no way I could hit that.  They forgot that half way down the fairway and to the right there was a large limestone slab standing behind a small pond.  I assure you, if you swing hard enough and inaccurately enough you can ricochet a ball off that stone and send it flying behind you to hit the shed.  I know.  I did it.  I think I broke a window, but I am not sure about that.  I do remember the howls of laughter, however.

All of this leads me to think of another person I consider one of my spiritual heroes: Henri Nouwen.  The poor man was plagued by self-doubt and searched long and hard for acceptance.  All the while he was revered by thousands and thousands of adoring readers.  His book, Clowning in Rome, is helpful.  Written during a five month stay in Rome, Nouwen was torn between, on the one hand, the power, glory, and pageantry present in the Vatican City and the ancient/modern city of Rome and, on the other hand, the clowns.  Not “actual” clowns, but people who lived on the margins and engaged in what surely seemed like foolishness to those in power.  People who collected drunks off the streets at night and took them to safe and warm locations caught Nouwen’s attention.  People who cared for the elderly and disabled captured his imagination.  People who “wasted” their time with grade-school dropouts impressed him.  He writes, “…I started to realize that in the great circus of Rome, full of lion-tamers and trapeze artists whose dazzling feats claim our attention, the real and true story was told by the clowns. Clowns are not in the center of the events.  They appear between the great acts, fumble and fall, and make us smile again after the tension created by the heroes we came to admire.  The clowns don’t have it together, they do not succeed in what they try, they are awkward, out of balance, and left-handed, but…they are on our side.  We respond to them not with admiration but with sympathy, not with amazement but with understanding, not with tension but with a smile.  Of the virtuosi we say, ‘How can they do it?’  Of the clowns we say, ‘They are like us.’  The clowns remind us with a tear and a smile that we share the same human weaknesses.” (p. 2)

And yet those “clowns” Nouwen observed were and are important witnesses to the kingdom.  Perhaps, just perhaps, they should be our role models.  What we are called to do is so much bigger than what most of us can pull off in an impressive fashion.  Often we look foolish.  However, our fumbling feebleness is no excuse for not attempting to do our best.  We do the best we can, as silly as it often appears, knowing God is glorified in our humble, sincere, and awkward attempts to point people in God’s direction.  So, come May 5th, I will be the best (and most incompetent) golfer at the tournament.  I can handle the ridicule, if it means other people are empowered to be kingdom builders in places where I can’t go.

Corie, dearest, please don’t make me cry.

Practical Wisdom? (2)

I understand that since it is holy week I should probably be pulling together some reflections on these events which are crucial to the Christian faith.  I suspect many Christian bloggers are doing just that this week.  I, on the other hand, would like to write about Aristotle.  At least initially, Aristotle will figure large in this posting.

Earlier today, my lovely wife and I led a discussion on the second chapter of Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s book Practical Wisdom: the Right Way to Do the Right Thing (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010).  The authors both teach at Swarthmore College, which was founded by the Religious Society of Friends in 1860; and, therefore, I suppose I was predisposed to “like” the book before I even cracked it open.  [Speaking of Swarthmore College, supposedly the main dining hall looks a lot like the dining hall at Hogwarts…or so my eldest son recently told me.]  Anyway, Schwartz and Sharpe point out that many, many Americans, both professionals and clients, are dissatisfied with the way our institutions works.  It would seem that, according to the writers, professionals are urged forward by either the goad of administrative oversight and enforcement of rules, commonly known as “the stick”, or teased into better performance by incentives, commonly known as “the carrot.”  However, as our authorial friends (“f” not “F” which would suggest they are Quakers) note: “…rules and incentives are not enough.  They leave out something essential.  This book is about what that ‘something’ is.  It is what classical philosopher Aristotle called practical wisdom.” (5)

Aristotle, according to S&S, believed our most basic social practices were always forcing us to make choices.  For example, how can one be loyal to a friend and still tell him his new hair cut isn’t actually “working” for him.  You need practical wisdom and not mere abstract ethical reasoning to figure out how to do that.  If you followed abstract ethical reasoning like “never tell a lie” that poor guy might start weeping and wailing publically and curled up like an armadillo in a corner when you say, “Well, Bill it looks like two rats just fought to the death over a piece of cheese in your hair.”  No, you need wisdom to respond appropriately when Bill, totally unaware that his barber is legally blind, asks, “How does my hair look?  Do you like the new style?”  Aristotle believed that particular circumstances demanded a specific approach, i.e. wisdom, to making these life choices.  As S&S write, “The wisdom to answer such questions and to act rightly was distinctly practical, not theoretical.  It depended on our ability to perceive the situation, to have the appropriate feelings or desires about it, to deliberate about what was appropriate in these circumstances, and to act.” (5)  Ultimately, one needs a particular character or characteristics to be ethical.  These include, but are not limited to, loyalty, self-control, fairness, generosity gentleness and truthfulness.  In the final analysis, Aristotle was really interested in “virtue(s)”.

These virtues aren’t free floating unconnected commitments.  One doesn’t automatically “act wisely” once they develop a particular level of truthfulness or gentleness.  Sometimes an individual virtue conflicts with other virtues.  Back to Bill and his hair cut.  Bill’s friend, who is very truthful, might make that wisecrack about the rat death match.  But hopefully his friend has also developed the virtue of gentleness.  And there is the dilemma.  What to do now!?  Truth or gentleness or another option.  Aristotle argued the solution is the framework within which we live.  We must be guided by “proper aims or goals” or, as Aristotle said, telos. (7) Our ultimate responses to life are to be guided by the goals we hope to achieve or the ends for which we are striving.  If you are a doctor your goal is to heal patients; and, therefore, your practical wisdom will help you arrive at the correct action in a given instances.  You are not driven by rules or thrust forward by incentives.  You do the right thing because it helps you achieve your telos or goal of healing a patient.

Again, we turn back to Bill’s haircut.  You know Bill considers you his best friend on earth, and as that special person, Bill has told you of his undying affection for Mary, the captain of the women’s lacrosse team.  In fact, you know he went to get that trendy, but insanely ridiculous, hair cut hoping to catch her eye and perhaps, just perhaps, win her affection.  You know that your ultimate goal is to be the best friend you can be to Bill.  Now what will you do, given that telos?  Maybe, you will say, “Bill, old buddy, do you think a competitive lacrosse player will be impressed by that amazingly complex hair cut?  Lacrosse players strike me as people who are straight forward, drive to the goal and score kinda people.  I think she may be really confused by the dense layer of goop you are using to spike your hair.  And dying it the school colors might work IF our school colors were anything other than crimson and yellow.  I think you may want to go back and get a Justin Bieber cut.”  Okay, a real friend wouldn’t say Justin Bieber, but he may suggest something along the lines Matt Damon or Ryan Gosling.  You have just told the truth with gentleness and gone a long way to sealing the deal that Bill will be your friend for life because you cared for him and saved him some serious social embarrassment.  And that is a worthy goal.

Schwartz and Sharpe have written a very engaging text; however, ultimately it falls short of what it could be.  I am specifically thinking that their Aristotelian suggestions are great for society at large, but I am guessing most of the people reading this have made another commitment other than a generic commitment to the greatest social good.  I suspect most of us identify the kingdom of God as the greatest social good.  In his 2010 text, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, N.T. Wright (in the blog rules, I warned you this would happen, look it up in a previous posting) spends sometime writing about Aristotle’s ethic and comparing it to Jesus and the early Church’s understanding.  The Christian goal or telos is the kingdom of God which was begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Ultimately, that kingdom will come in its fullness when the New Heaven and New Earth appear.  In the mean time believers are called to be priests and rulers with Christ, as we anticipate the kingdom’s full arrival.  As we wait and anticipate that day, we are being transformed…particularly our minds which are to focus on the goal of the kingdom.  This mental transformation leads to the development of three virtues: faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13).  These, in turn, result in nine varieties of fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23.  Note that Paul implies that without these one can’t inherit the kingdom of God…Gal. 5:21.  Also, I can’t recall how love gets mentioned twice other than the fact that it is REALLY important).  Our transformed minds, virtues and fruits facilitate and embody our work as priests or intercessors between God and Creation.  We live virtuously as witnesses to God’s greatness and coming rule.  Our virtues are signposts pointing to where we are ultimately heading.  Christian character matters because it is a witness to where God is taking us and is evidence we are being transformed.

And to think: all this began with God coming to us in the person of Jesus, who lived a virtuous life, died a victorious death, and was raised in glory!

[BTW, while I wrote this I was listening to U2 “The Best of 1980-1990” where, on track number 12, B.B. King “schools” the Irish kids regarding passionate music-making.]

On Fire Engines and the Nature of God

The following piece was written back in 1992 when Wanda and I lived in Nairobi, Kenya for a year. It was originally published in the Brethren in Christ Church magazine, The Evangelical Visitor. I had to borrow a copy of it from a colleague who had filed it in a folder entitled “Open Theology.” {insert nervous laughter here}  Also, I am happy to report I have violated the 750 word length rule.

 

I had been in Kenya a little over two months, and it suddenly dawned on me: I had not seen a fire truck. I thought perhaps there were no such devices of Western technology here. After all, a fire engine is a significant financial investment, and the grave nature of that investment is compounded by the fact that Kenya must import such equipment. The task of rounding up sufficient amounts of foreign currency is probably beyond most developing nations, or so I assumed. I simply concluded there were no fire engines in Kenya.

Later that week I sat in my office thinking about God. To be more exact, I was thinking about the way Africans view God and how that differs from my North American perspectives. I concluded that most, certainly not all, Americans see God as “preventer,” while most, again certainly not all, Africans view God as “redeemer.” Impressed by my own observation, as shallow as it was, I wrote on a scrap of paper, “God is primarily in the redemption business, not the prevention business.”

These two seemingly unrelated events came together in one “blinding” revelation about one week later. This event is certainly not to be confused with an earlier Christian’s Damascus Road revelation. [In fact, my revelation took place on Mbagathi Road, and there were no donkeys in the vicinity. There were, however, a few goats eating grass near the scene of the revelation.] Isaac Gyampadu, a third year student, and I were strolling to Daystar University College. There, before our eyes, sat a bright red fire engine. I, being a little more excited than he, exclaimed, “Isaac, look! A fire engine. I didn’t think Kenya had fire trucks.”

Unimpressed, he calmly responded, “There’s no reason.”

My mind, running full tilt in Western mode, said, “No reason?” Once my mouth caught up to my brain, it responded, “What do you mean ‘no reason’? There are fires in Kenya, so you need fire engines.”

Isaac proceeded to teach a brief lesson in cultural anthropology. “When you call the fire brigade, it takes 20 to 25 minutes to arrive. And when they arrive, they don’t know what to do. So let the house burn down, and rebuild it.” [The very next day this observation was confirmed by a front page photo in a daily newspaper, The Nation. The picture’s caption reported that it took the fire company two hours to arrive at the scene. I guess Isaac was being kind.]

Somewhat baffled, I shot back, “You mean people don’t want to prevent disasters?”

“Well, it’s not part of African culture. You don’t plan to prevent a crisis. You deal with it as it comes.”

I thought to myself, “Seemingly you deal with it well after it comes.”

At that moment my eyes were opened. My North American culture had, in fact, warped a primary element of God’s nature. We North Americans tend to avoid pain, disaster, and the like as much as possible. A well-known proverb is “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” As often as we repeat this line, one would think it was a part of Scripture. And we expect our God to help us avoid the potential unpleasantries of life. Even when facing the inevitable facts of the life cycle—like death—we ask God to keep the harsh realities from us. Whether we want to accept it or not, we desire a “preventer” God.

The central problem with this cultural impact on our theology is that God ends up looking like an uncaring, deaf, and incompetent minor deity. We ask that we might avoid trouble and yet troubles come. Thus God seems rather ineffective. The fact is that bad things happen to people, and God is not in the business of preventing these “bad things,” despite our desire for him to do so.

Africans, on the other hand, are light years ahead of us here; or, perhaps I should say centuries behind us. They are ages “behind us” in that their culture has allowed them to think like the writers of the Bible and, thereby, they can be more faithful to the biblical image of God as “redeemer.” Yahweh is one who brings salvation (or wholeness) out of disastrous events. The God of the Bible brings good from evil. His primary nature is to “redeem” not to “prevent.” It certainly is easier to pray to this type of God, and it’s a lot easier on God.

Instead of setting God up to become a big disappointment, this understanding of God opens the door for God to act in a way consistent with his nature. Remember, God did not prevent slavery in Egypt, but he did redeem the children of Israel. Nor did God help Israel avoid the Babylonian captivity, but Jerusalem was rebuilt. And finally, Jesus, God’s own Son, died on a cross, but this tragedy was followed by resurrection. African culture(s) allows Christians to better understand this aspect of God’s nature, while I fear our North American culture(s) clouds our eyes to this biblical truth.

In the final analysis, I am glad that the city of Nairobi has at least one fire engine. While the reports are not so encouraging about the fire company’s ability to extinguish fires, it certainly is helpful for people, such as me, who are interested in biblical theology.