Monday, December 28, 2015

Post-Christmas Reflection

Consumerism eclipses spirituality during holidays. It seems as though all religions suffer from the same materialism displacing faith. People want to express their love for family and friends, and the easiest, most expedient way to express love is to give gifts. Presents take less time and energy than presence. And, I must admit that I enjoy receiving gifts, especially when they are well-thought and personalized.
The science of marketing is more developed now than at any other time in human history. Using metadata, large retailers and information aggregators can tailor advertisements to a particular consumer’s tastes and weaknesses. Pricing algorithms change the visible price on an object in online retailers like Amazon. The price you see is slightly different from the price I see, and the price either one of us sees might be different the next time we click on the item. Doing an internet search yields advertisements for related products. All of these factors make it easier to sell products and more difficult for consumers to resist materialism.
The basic beliefs of most world religions are about inner peace, love, grace, and good will toward humanity. As a Christian, the Christmas story is essential because it sets the stage for the atoning crucifixion/resurrection story. Without Christmas, we do not have God-incarnate. God-incarnate (aka Jesus) is part of the Holy Trinity and foundational for Easter. Christmas is about God-at-work in conjunction with humanity.
Christmas is a time to reflect on God-incarnate. Basic Christian beliefs, like love and compassion, are embodied in an innkeeper finding space for a pregnant teen and her boyfriend, even though there is no space. Mary’s Magnificat is praise for God choosing us, lowly human beings, to be part of an amazing story. Shepherds were vagabonds in their milieu. None of the characters in the story were focused on material possessions or buying gifts to reflect their feelings for one another. Even the story of the magi is about gifts that have more symbolic significance than practical value.
How we express love for one another reflects what we think is important. Calling someone on the phone requires more engagement than texting or emailing. Comments on someone’s posts on social media (like Facebook) might seem personal, but they are public. Some people might comment with full awareness that everyone else can see their comments. This type of commenting become self-aggrandizing. A deeper expression of love or care for another person is spending time together, begin fully aware of the other, asking questions and listening to the answers.
The challenge in a consumeristic society is to be the person who offers presence instead of presents. Gift-giving can become an escalating arms race. One relative spends more, so, out of a sense of fairness, it is easy to feel pressure to reciprocate. Dialing down gift-giving can be like swimming upstream against ever-increasing spending. However, materialism does not reflect Christian values. It does not reflect the values of any of the world’s major religions, but I write as a Christian theologian. My hope is for the Christmas/Advent season to evolve to reflect faith beliefs, rather than conspicuous consumption.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Carson-Newman, what happened?

Dear CN,
We met one summer day in the early 1990s. My mother and I visited your campus and I was smitten by the friendly faces, pretty grounds, and interesting professors. During my time as an undergraduate, I enjoyed many extra-curricular activities. I made lifelong friends, including my wife. My professors challenged me to think more deeply about important issues. The campus ministers pushed me to be more loving and inclusive.

Now, you have done this. Why? Randall O’Brien, presumably speaking with the support of trustees, says that CN is a Christian school. Then, why not act more Christ-like? In the Bible, Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The new exemption from DOE Title IX, allows the school to ban pregnant and parenting students and students based on their sexual orientation or identity. The waiver allows the school to exclude their neighbor. Instead of educating, the exemption paves the way for indoctrinating. The exemption is unloving and exclusive. It is antithetical to the Jesus represented in the Gospels.

The move is disappointing and shameful. It sounds homophobic, sexist, and, perhaps, even misogynistic. It is step toward admitting only students who already share like qualities. CN, if your goal is to have a homogenous student body, you are moving in the right direction. When I was a student, we celebrated diversity. We sought to attract students from a greater variety of backgrounds. I was privileged to participate in a Diversity Task Force. Now, what would you ask a Diversity Task Force to do? Soon, the entire student body will look alike. This will leave students ill-prepared for life after graduation.

CN, the journey is not over. You can repent. You can turn away from your mistakes. You can reach out to people who are different from your administrators and current students. You can learn from them. When you engage openly and honestly, you might even grow. The challenge for you is to demonstrate the courage to admit this mistake, accept Title IX protection for sex-based discrimination, and seek to be an institution for justice and equality.

My prayer is for you to be more loving to all people.

Grace and peace, 
An alumni who cares

Friday, September 18, 2015

Past, present, & future

Eight years ago (2007), my family and I began a journey. We left our life in the US from BWI airport. My two sons were three and four years old. We flew from BWI to Iceland, enjoyed a few days seeing glaciers and geysers, and then went to England. We were moving to Oxford for me to continue my graduate studies in theology. We thought that we would be there three or four years, but after two years, I accepted a call to be the pastor of Kilmarnock Baptist Church. Our family moved back to the United States, where I have been serving and we have been making a life for the last six years. 

Today, September 17, 2015, we return to BWI, board a British Airways flight, just like eight years ago, and return to Oxford. This time, we are going for my degree ceremony. It is the end of the journey we began eight years ago, in September 2007. 

Life takes many twists and turns. We often end up in unexpected places, or we end up in places where we did not imagine going. I have a friend who was living a simple, happily ever-after, when, six years ago, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She was a special, wonderful person who died a year ago this week. Another friend had what appeared to be a rock-solid home life, but recently confessed that he and his wife have been separated for quite some time. None of us expected to be where we are, doing what we are doing.

What is next? Only a fool would predict what will happen. We can speculate based on past experiences and our hopes and dreams for the future. What will happen is unknown and unknowable. One interesting aspect of the future is the possibility for it to be better than we ever imagined. 

Life could also be worse. My friend who lost his wife did not imagine life as it is now. My friend who is separated from his wife probably did not think that would ever happen to him. I am lucky, blessed, spoiled, or fill-in-the-blank because my wife and I are best friends. She has walked with me through our move to England, our move back to the U.S., the ups and downs of pastoral ministry, the absolute despair of a struggling academic trying to finish his thesis, and many other adventures and misadventures. 

As I reflect on where we were eight years ago, I see someone who was naive, yet full of hopes and an imagination for the future. I wonder what the next eight years will bring. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sin & Freedom

Sin is real. Part of human freedom includes the ability to make decisions. Some of the decisions are good, and some are bad. Sinfulness is the state of human freedom when individuals make decisions that separate the individual decision-maker from God. Each person makes decisions that separate us from God. We make those kinds of decisions every day. We are sinful when we are selfish, impatient, unkind, inconsiderate, or any of the myriad forms of human behavior. 

Poverty exists in many forms. The greatest poverty is missing out on God's grace. Systemic poverty creates situations in which people are born without opportunity, without adequate food or shelter. Material poverty is real but can be vanquished. I do not pretend to fully understand poverty, its causes, or even the possible solutions. However, I do see people who embrace their own desires and live into their sinfulness. 

Writing about sin is not intended to be a launchpad for a diatribe on social ills. Lists of dos and don'ts lead to Pharisee-ism. The rules become God. Sinfulness is that state of fallenness and the continuing need to be transformed by God. Being transformed by God does not lift a person out of material poverty; it cannot break the chains of systemic poverty. However, it can lead to a more fulfilling life. 

Voodoo worship about to begin. 

As I write this blog entry, I am sitting in a guesthouse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and there is a Voodoo worship service about to begin nearby. I am here with a group of 14 people from my church. We are trying to bring God's love into the lives of 34 children who live at the Source de Lumiere orphanage. Many of the children lost one or both of their parents in the 2010 earthquake. 

The 2010 Haitian earthquake is part of that nebulous category of natural evils. The world quakes, floods, rains, or burns, and people suffer. Many learned people associate natural disasters with God's condemnation of creation. In the Noah story in Genesis, God makes an explicit promise to never take out divine frustration on creation through massive destruction. Therefore, there must be another explanation for natural disasters. Human disaster, on the other hand, does have a divine relationship. That is, God gives humankind the gift of freedom. People use their freedom to act selflessly or selfishly. 

In a recent conversation with some Haitian pastors, they told me about Voodoo. They said that many Haitian Christians practice syncretism between Voodoo and Christianity. For everyday matters, e.g. Lord, give me a good day, they turn to the Christian God. For serious matters, e.g. God, cure my illness, they return to Voodoo. This is the freedom to act and make decisions. It is the freedom to put one's faith in God or in something else. For Christians, God is capable of handling both great and small problems. 

Transformation in Christ means becoming a new being. Instead of discontinuing sinful behavior, per se, being transformed means thirsting for God in a deep way. I have been in Haiti since last Tuesday. Because I have been dehydrated before, I have made it a practice to habitually drink water since arriving on this beautiful island. I keep refilling my water bottle and keep drinking it. I am well hydrated, but since I have had the experience of being dehydrated, I cannot help but keep drinking water. Being transformed in Christ is similar. Even after praying and becoming synchronized with God's will, the transformed Christian keeps thirsting for God, keeps growing, keeps reading about God, and keeps turning away from things that serve to separate one from God. 

For the Christian, Voodoo is like so many other distractions, like selfishness, greed, consumerism, materialism, or objectivism. They take Christians away from focusing on Christ. For me, I want to focus on being transformed by God. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Helpful Words

What can I say that is most helpful to you?

I am a white, male, North American. Those identifying characteristics put me in a unique category. Whatever I say, I say from a position of privilege. I might not have as much as some celebrity-wanna-be-politician, but my words come from a lifetime of getting sufficient food and ample education

What can I say about theodicy (questions of evil) to someone who lives in a less developed country? What can I say that is useful to a person in Haiti? I can talk about my struggles as a pastor in North America. I can talk about the controversy over what color to paint a Sunday School classroom or the dilemma of painting parking space stripes on the newly repaved parking lot. However, will my Haitian brothers and sisters identify? No. 

Tonight, a prominent pastor in Port-au-Prince invited me to give a lecture on theodicy. I decided to talk about my upcoming journal article "Being and Nothingness: revisiting Berdyaev's interpretation of the Ungrund." It is riveting stuff! When it is published, I am sure the journal will go in to several editions of reprints (read sarcastically). How is Berdyaev helpful to Haitian pastors? This is a significant question. Berdyaev is no more or less significant to Haitian pastors than he is to North American pastors. His thoughts on the nature of God and God's relationship with freedom, evil, and the eschaton are relevant, but deciphering his thought requires wading through some fairly dens and somewhat dated material. This is a tall order for North American pastors, many of whom do not pick up books as dense as Berdyaev after seminary. For Haitian pastors who have never heard of Berdyaev and do not have his works readily available, this is an almost impossible task. 

Instead of launching into a lecture to which attendees would politely listen and then never consider again, I began by asking what is the greatest challenge facing Haitian churches. One pastor spoke up, "Syncretism!" Others agreed. I quickly changed tack. I could introduce Berdyaev, meonic and oukonic nothingness, and freedom, but I could not simply present a paper with the assumption that they would all leave and procure Slavery and Freedom in order to better understand what some blan was on about. 

I began by giving a background on syncretism and then explained how we would relate theodicy to syncretism. Then, I asked, "What is the greatest evil you face?" "Murder." "Lying." Voodoo." No one, except me, mentioned the 2010 earthquake. Thus, I did not focus attention on it. We talked about how to respond to murder (a theology of transformation; thank you Oliver Davies). We explored lying in relation to a covenant faith.

From reading their faces, I think the lecture went well. Maybe it did not. Either way, my approach shifted, and I feel good about that. Who knows? Maybe it was helpful. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Haiti, can I serve you?

On Tuesday, I traveled with thirteen people from the church where I serve as pastor to Haiti. This is my sixth trip, and I have learned much on each one. Some trips have been better than others, and this trip will be no exception. We are at the close of the second day, so it is too early to say how it will turn out. Will this be the best? Worst? Or, different in its own unique way? In some ways, the answer will always be 'yes' to all three questions. 

One big difference about this trip is our approach. We have done short term mission projects poorly in the past. I can look at one trip with a particularly critical eye. We perpetuated a cycle of dependency and poverty of self-sufficiency by flying down and doing physical work that a local person could have done better. The latter approach would have cost us less and provided work for a Haitian. 

Each time I take a group on a mission trip, I have the group read a book and discuss it as part of our preparation for the trip. My favorite has always been Lingenfelter's Ministering Cross-Culturally. This book is effective at teaching people who have not traveled very much about what it will be like when they are in a different culture, and it helps readers understand why different is not necessary bad. 

This trip, I decided to use a different book. I chose the conservative-evangelical When Helping Hurts. Several people who are very close to me have recommended it. It was an eye-opening experience. The group was quite convicted that we probably should not have spent the $15k+ on the trip, but instead invested the money in the orphanage. The group was also conflicted. Eight of the fourteen had been the previous year and were very excited to be going back. They love the children and could not wait to see them. Their Facebook pages celebrated the homecoming-of-sorts when we reached the orphanage. 

Conflict comes from knowing the truth, yet holding fast to old ways of thinking and acting. I come to Haiti with a new vision, one of listening, one of openness, one of looking to find out how I can serve. I come praying to be able to help and not hurt. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Taking the Long View

Jeremiah and Hezekiah saw the world differently. Jeremiah talked about the need for the people to repent, to change from their ways to God’s ways. Hezekiah was Mr. Sunshine; he told the people that they were fine the way they were and did not need to change.

In some ways, we are in a similar situation. Some people argue that everything is fine--I’m okay. You’re okay. But, are we? Not really. Are we not all sinners in need of God’s grace? Yes. Do we not all need to repent and turn away from our sinful selves and focus on God’s truth, light, and calling? Again, yes.

When you look at the world, what do you see? Often, I see brokenness, loneliness, fear, unrest, despair. I see a world in need of Christ. I see people who do not understand what a covenant relationship with God looks like. I see people who do not truly love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and mind because we are too busy putting ourselves first. I see a culture that tries to fill the void of brokenness with everything, except God.

Our calling, as Christians, is to be a light in the world. We cannot be God’s light when we fan the flames of hatred or engage in name-calling. God will judge each one of us. The means by which we enter a relationship with God is Jesus atoning death and resurrection, not our works or a right understanding of righteousness. In the end, every theological precept will fall before the glory of the Lord, and we will have only Christ Jesus to claim as our justification and the Holy Spirit as advocate.

Jeremiah 29:11 is a famous verse, scribbled on wall hangings all around the world, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

We are irresponsible if we pin our theology on one verse of scripture. However, this verse summarizes a profound faith in God that is consistent throughout the Bible. When we hear news that troubles us, we can try to take a long view.

When there is a mass shooting, as in Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston on June 17th, we can pray for the victims’ families, pray for the survivors, pray for the shooter, and seek ways to be involved in finding a loving, Christ-like way forward. We should not engage in kneejerk reactions. When the Supreme Court of the U.S. makes a major decision, especially one that evokes an emotional response, we can pray for the people who are on the other side of the issue and seek God’s guidance in our response.

Move slowly. Imagine the other person. Consider Jesus’ response to hot issues in his day.

Ask what can I do to bring glory to God, unify my sisters and brothers in the Holy Spirit, and shine Jesus’ light in the world.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Last Day (this trip)

My final day in Haiti, on this trip, was one of the best days I have had in this country of endless contradictions. 

6:00 AM Wake up. 
Mornings are nice here. They are cool, the birds and other animals make sounds, and everything seems fresh and promising. I read 1 Peter and walked around the campus of L'Université Chrétienne du Nord d'Haíti (UCNH). It is a green and vibrant campus. As on any university campus, the students bring youthful energy and optimism. UCNH is dedicated to keeping green spaces and has a large agronomy program. Walking through the campus is a bit like being in Eden.

7:15 AM Breakfast
My friends Steve and Nancy James, CBF medical missionaries who live on the campus of UCNH, invited me to join them for breakfast. I always enjoy their company, and my friends Andy and Jutta Cowie, CBF/BMS missionaries who drove me from Port-au-Prince to Limbe, were staying with the James. They were also at breakfast. The conversation was nice, yet somehow deep. 

8:00 AM Teach
My philosophy of religion students were waiting for me. I gave them an essai or final quiz. They handed in their take home tests. I lectured until about 11:00, went to my room and packed up, said goodbye to Monel Jules and Lori and Coso, had lunch with Steve and Nancy, said goodbye to them, and we left. 

12:30 PM Depart
The drive south to Port-au-Prince was, for me, at this time in 2015, a neat experience. Some of the roads are smooth, and the diesel Nissan Frontier can make 120 kph. Then, there are enormous potholes. There are pedestrians everywhere. Sometimes there is a market ON the motorway. There are people with horses, goats and other animals grazing or wandering, there are people pulling carts, broken vehicles, and more. Instead of flares or orange safety triangles, a person with a broken vehicle will break off a green, leafy branch and set it in front of and behind the vehicle. People recognize it as a symbol for a broken-down vehicle.

1:30 PM Visit SHG Leader
As on the way north, on the way south, we had to visit one of Jutta's Self-Help Group (SHG) leaders. Jutta trains the leaders and helps establish the groups, but they do not give the participants any seed money. These are self-help groups. The emphasis is on Haitians helping other Haitians. There are 137 groups, but they grow rapidly. With continued support and proper management, there is no reason why these groups will not continue to grow and lead Haitian people to be self-sufficient. CBF is passing this program to TearFund after Andy and Jutta go on to their next assignment in Guinea.

4:30 PM Pit stop
We stopped at Easy Hotel ( to get fuel and use the restroom. It was clean and the people were friendly. We passed a section of beaches and resorts, just a bit north of Port-au-Prince. The turquoise water tempted me to fake an emergency and dash off to explore this section of the Caribbean. 

5:30 Driving through PAP
Back in Port-au-Prince, we drove through Cité Soliel, a place that is famous for its danger. Andy described it this way: "It's one of those things where the richest people live on the hill [Petionville] and the poorest people live by the sea." Jutta pointed out that many people still live in tents there. Then, we drove past the main market; it is sort of an open air wholesale district. It buzzes with energy.

6:30 Dinner
Last night, we went to Ali's Pizza, where a live band entertained us while we enjoyed pizza, Prestige, and camaraderie. 

We walked to the new PAP Marriott after dinner. 

The new Marriott is a stark contrast with the world around it, but will possibly attract more Westerners to visit and spend dollars in this country that is a bundle of contradictions. I hope it does. I hope Haiti improves. There is too much potential here to ignore.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Yesterday, I visited Source de Lumiere orphanage in Port-au-Prince. My fourth visit over the past two years revealed many changes. Individually, each change was relatively small, but taken together, they make a big difference. 

On my first visit, the boys and girls were segregated by gender. There was a large room for boys and another for girls. One and a half years ago, I was with a group who built storage cubbies for the children. Now, they have subdividers in their respective rooms in order to further separate the children by age. This is a great step forward, as the older children are now in adolescence and need increased privacy. 

On this visit, the children seemed happy. They were in an apparent routine. 

The long term mission of the orphanage is taking shape too. New children entered in December. A well and water dispensary has increased capacity and four of the older children are learning how to operate the machinery. One of the older girls was working in the kitchen. The children were all doing their homework when we arrived yesterday. 

Vocational training might seem obvious, but on previous visits, I could see no evidence of plans for the future. Some projects have started and failed, but others, like the water dispensary, are growing and providing revenue for the orphanage. 

These little changes are relatively inexpensive, especially by North American standards. They have made a big difference in the lives of some very precious children. For that, I am thankful. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sail Repair in Haiti

Not all ideas are well conceived. 

For the past three years, I have been going to Haiti. Originally, I started going as a professor at L'Université Chrétienne du Nord d'Haíti (UCNH). I taught philosophy of religion, which is my area of expertise. This is only relevant because it is easy for people to get to unsteady ground when they move outside of their areas of expertise. 

On my first trip to Haiti, my son and I met missionaries Andy and Jutta Cowie. We became quick friends and the Cowies spent Thanksgiving 2013 with my family in Kilmarnock, Virginia. The Cowies took my son and I to visit an orphanage, Source du Lumiére, in Port-au-Prince. This began the second part of my mission in Haiti. In 2014, I brought two groups from the Kilmarnock Baptist Church to work with the children in the orphanage. 

I continue to teach at UCNH and am planning to bring a group from my church back to Source du Lumiére in August 2015. 

In early 2015, I thought of a new idea. I know sailmakers in Virginia (in fact, I am married to one), and the people who fish in Haiti use sailboats to go fishing. Why not take some sailmakers from Virginia down to Port-au-Prince to repair sails?

After emailing with a pastor in Port-au-Prince, the idea seemed promising. Yesterday, we met with two fishermen to discuss the idea. 

In the picture above, one of the fisherman explains to me the way these two gentlemen fish. I kept picturing Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

I learned a valuable lesson. They fish and live with out us. They exist, mostly, just fine. They said that it is harder and harder to find the fish, but that might have any number of causes.  They use a denim-like fabric to make their sails. Local people make and repair the sails. They have a 15 hp outboard and they go out fishing until they fill a large cooler. They fish by hand. They also said that it would be unsafe for us to come down to the seaside to see their operation or, for that matter, to fix their sails.

It did not sound like our North American sailmakers would be any use. 

Andy Cowie and my friend Pastor Ronel Mesidor were there too, and Andy asked how we could help. They said that they would like a new boat. Well... that is not exactly something we can do. 

Short term mission projects are about doing good. I teach because that is what I have been trained to do, and UCNH does not have another theologian who can teach philosophy of religion. We visit the children in the orphanage because they can use as much love and attention as we, or anyone else, can give them. People in churches should continually ask: is what we are doing helping or hurting? Am I contributing to making a situation better or worse? In my understanding, taking sailmakers from Virginia to Port-au-Prince would not be helpful. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Book Review: A Little Exerecise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke

Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986) was a German Protestant theologian and prolific writer. He engaged with Karl Barth’s theology early in his career and was active in the German Confessing Church during World War II. After the war, he was a prominent theologian and lecturer.

His short (very short!) book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians is an introductory lecture to seminary students, and although it is a little dated in tone and gender usage, it appears to be, to me, an indispensible collection of wisdom for seminarians or early career ministers. It is also a helpful reminder for more seasoned clergypersons.

Thielicke presents thirteen brief ideas (2-3 pages each) about the tension between the ideas a student learns in seminary or divinity school and life of ministry. From my own experience, I have witnessed the wisdom in his thought. For example, in the third chapter, “Unhappy Experience with a Theologian’s Home-Coming,” he writes about the difficulty of preaching or leading a Bible study after a semester in seminary. Before the young ordinand goes off to seminary, she or he teaches or preaches with enthusiasm, a passion for God, and little else. After a semester or two of serious study, this same person returns how and desperately tries to share this newfound wisdom. However, the book-learning does not have the necessary accompanying life experiences, and it pushes listeners from where their faith journeys have led them.

One of the best chapters addresses dogmatics. He writes, “[Dogmatics] presupposes scientific and religious study of Bible texts, it ponders the thought of the Church over two thousand years, it comes to terms with philosophy and art, it broods over contemporary problems, and it inquires who [humanity] is with whom it currently has to deal and in what abysses [ humanity] lives” (page 27). He goes on to address proper theology in a way that seems to be ignored in a contemporary age that seems fixated on practical theology, church growth models, and commercializing faith. It, and the following chapters, serve as a strong call for ministers to reengage with theology and the philosophy of religion.

To write more would be to risk writing a longer review than the actual book. For a quick read, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians is worth the time.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin

Voluntary Simplicity 
Duane Elgin
(New York: Quill, 1993)
In Voluntary Simplicity, Duane Elgin introduces readers to the idea of living outwardly simply, but experiencing an inwardly rich life. The book was first published in 1981 and based on a survey Elgin conducted. He writes about the “coming ecological crisis” long before anthropogenic climate change became accepted science. In many ways, this book is ahead of its time. In other ways, it is a little bit dated. However, the overall premise is sound; life can be rich and fulfilling while remaining materially simple.

The version I read was revised and reprinted in 1993. It is organized into three parts: “Living on the New Frontier,” “The Philosophy of Simplicity,” and “Simplicity and Social Renewal.” Sections one and three are broken into two chapters each, and the middle section has three chapters. Sections and subsections make each chapter easy to follow and the book is generally well-written, and I found it to be a quick read.

The first chapter explains Elgin’s idea of simplicity, which is similar to arguments put forward by authors like E. F. Schumacher and Ron Sider. While his argument is similar to others, Elgin’s concept of simplicity is a worthy addition to the literature on the subject. The second chapter contains the most dated material in the entire book because it is based on the survey he conducted.

After chapter two, chapters three through five comprise Part Two: The Philosophy of Simplicity. Appreciating life, living more voluntarily, and living more simply are the key concepts in Elgin’s ideology. They are also the most valuable part of the book. The following example illustrates his ideas in action.

Elgin tells the story about a lunch encounter with Elise Boulding. She is a Quaker, feminist, sociologist, and advocate for nonviolence. As Elgin sat down to lunch at a conference on the need for social change, he noticed that in spite of the opulent spread of food before the conference participants, Boulding, without commenting on her actions, simply took an apple, a piece of cheese, and a slice of bread. Elgin asked Boulding how she felt, and she said that she felt fine. Then, after more polite conversation, he asked about her food selection. “In a few quiet sentences, she explained that she did not want to eat what others in the world could not have as well” (p. 59). Her actions illustrate Elgin’s premise of voluntary simplicity. 

Elgin’s conclusion depends heavily on the shared traits of the Golden Rule. Building on common ground is effective in putting forward a counter-cultural idea. In a materialistic world, promoting simplicity is counter-cultural, even if it is a sound theological idea. He quotes a 28 year-old single man from the rural western part of the United States, “Satisfactions are the fulfillment of the heart. Dissatisfactions are the rumblings of the mind” (p. 102).

Friday, March 6, 2015

I'm sorry that happened versus I'm sorry I did that

A very minor thing happened to me. What that thing is does not really matter. Being gracious might mean letting it go, ignoring it, or moving on and forgetting about it. I strive to be gracious, so one of those options would have been best.


In a moment of dubious wisdom, I shared the thing with the person who was indirectly responsible. This wonderful person said, "I'm sorry that happened to you."

This is the same response I use when someone shares something with me about which I have no control. For example, after the earthquake in Haiti, I said, "I'm so sorry that happened." I meant it. I am sorry the earth shook and many, many people lost their lives. Yet, I do not take responsibility for the earthquake, and I, personally, do not have anything for which I need to apologize about the earthquake (ignoring unmitigated poverty is a separate topic).

When someone shares some sad news with me, I respond, "I am sorry that happened." I did not cause the test results to be positive, a loved one to die, or other bad news. My response is a reflection of my sympathy, not personal responsibility. I truly am sorry they are going through something bad, and the same is true when I hear those words from someone else. I recognize that they are sympathy, perhaps even empathy, but not a statement of responsibility.

This brings me to the thing. The person who could have owned responsibility, instead offered the generic, non-accountilibity statement: "I'm sorry that happened." 

Every person would do well to consider the richness of human speech. We can express love, healing, encouragement, approval, and many other positive feelings with words. We can also express hurt, hate, pain, disapproval, disappointment, and many other negative feelings with words. Instead of taking responsibility, we dodge our role in events by carefully choosing our words. 

Thoughtful speech is not accidental. 

The next time a thing happens, I will let it go. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jeep Dancing in Snow

It's not exactly theological, but it was fun.

It snowed. We went for a drive. This happened:

Friday, February 13, 2015

Preaching Advice from Rob Tennant

On July 13, 2004, my brother Rob Tennant sent the following advice to me. I was at my first pastorate and had just finished reading Fred Craddock's Preaching. It was overwhelming. Off the cuff, he emailed the following message to me:

You said that by the time you finished reading Craddock, your confidence was shaken just a bit.  Always keep this in mind.  When you preach, you do your best.  Also, you reach a point that no matter how much work you did on the sermon, Sunday morning comes and you've got to give them what you've got.  Count on a couple of things.  (1) They've heard better than what you'll give them.  (2) They've heard much, much worse than what you're going to give them.  (3) Some will like it.  (4) Some won't.  (5) Some will sleep through it.  (6) If anything good happens in the sermon, the Holy Spirit gets the credit.  (7) No matter how it goes, once you finish, the clock starts ticking and you've got 7 days until you preach again.

Over ten years later, it is still great advice.

Thanks Rob!