June 30, 2012

Grace to Pray: A Quote

I woke today and somehow locked eyes with a book on the shelf in the room I'm staying in (yes, it was looking at me): Richard Foster's Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home. Though quitting soon after the introduction's first page, I started reading this book before. This morning I read the first chapter. Foster's words are helping me:

"The truth of the matter is, we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives--altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well. And we pray by it."

June 27, 2012

I Know You: An Ethic of Meeting pt. 1

[Here are some chopped thoughts. Hopefully there will be a 2nd part to this soon.]

Meeting new people is an intriguing activity. For some it’s terrifying and for others it’s electrifying--in a good way, of course. It is somewhere in the middle for me, though I’m very aware the middle between terrifying and electrifyingly good is hard to place; it’s a vast space. But it’s true. And I’ve been doing a lot of it recently.

Many know but I’m sure some are unaware that I am currently in my third week of an internship at Eastside Foursquare Church in Bothell, Washington. Thus I’ve been meeting people, lots of them. And it’s good, I enjoy it, sometimes.

Someone I work closely with, after “knowing” each other for only a few days, said to me, while chipping away at our morning chore, “I didn’t think there was much to you.” “Oh, jee, thanks loser!,” I thought to myself. My superego and id compromised. I said something else. But it’s funny. What this person thought of me wasn’t who I was, nor am. So where did these thoughts of me come from? From where did this person based her conclusions? That’s what I want to know.

But realizations like this, but mostly on my part--as in, I’m the one doing the realizing--have been happening a lot and it’s because of the number of people I’ve met. I’ve been floored by how many times I’ve been wrong about someone; like really wrong. This has got me thinking about what it is to meet someone and how it should be done, the ethics behind this exchange. I wonder, is there a proper way to meet someone?

I’m not talking about what’s “seen”, the technique of your handshake or your introductory speech like, “Hey, what’s up, I’m Nick.” I’m talking about the covert, hidden and incognito, what’s taking place inside your mind. What’s of more interest to me is one’s preconceived notions, their judgments about ‘the other.’ Anytime two people come together, for anything really, things gets, well, complicated. Everything that there was one of, there’s now two; two personalities, two interpretations, two preconceived notions, two of what one thinks of the other.

But, how does this thinking-of-the-other come about? Where and how is it formed? Well, for starters, I can hear what someone says and the manner of their saying it. I can interpret that and configure what I think they are, what they’re like. But I can also judge someone long before I hear the words of their mouth. I need not a poem, song or spoken word. All I need is observation, to see them. I can make judgments based on their actions.

But all this boils down to a finer point, I think. We can package this together under a single word because words and actions don’t happen apart from a body. Essentially, bodies are the origin, they are what we have to work with, so to speak. They are what we see. They are what we notice and consider and judge. This can be a scary thought.

A new friend and fellow intern, Karina, a student at SPU, sent me a link to a lecture one of her theology professors spoke at Wheaton College--a young, mixed man, half black and half white. A quote of his from early in the lecture grounded itself in my mind, “My body was already doing work.” In other words, before he ever opened his mouth to speak and before he walked down a hallway to teach, his body was being interpreted. People were trying to understand him, organize his body and categorize him.

What do I think when I see a brown woman? What do I see when I see an overweight man?

In our culture where bodies can easily be divulsed from mind or personality and where people consume other’s bodies, we understand what it means to look upon a body or face and exegete it. We gaze upon someone and quickly, often without conscious oversight, draw out a meaning. Interpretation is almost inevitable and a second nature activity.

Most of what I “think” will be subconscious, not explicit. I wonder how easily I place some mental framework, my understanding of a person on them. This leads me back to what I said earlier: I’m usually wrong and sometimes surprised that I am. And this has been good for me to realize.

So what does it mean that I am usually wrong about people I meet? How should this inform an ethic of meeting (if such a thing is even necessary)? What part does someone’s body, if any, play in all this?

June 25, 2012

Post-Kenya Notebook: A Medical Clinic and Unclean Exegesis

A quick prelude, would that be alright?


Exegesis, the critical interpretation of a religious text, comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to draw out' (like the woman in the photo--isn't this shot great?). The trained exegete and devout Jesus-follower, through an armamentarium of hermeneutical disciplines, attempts to draw out the meaning of a biblical text. There are teachers and students, pastors and clergymen, at my previous school, and around the globe, committed to teaching and practicing sound exegetical methods, good hermeneutics. And they do so with thrill and passion. Hard to imagine?

Some of these methods will be obvious while others won't be. For instance, a biochemist, though untrained as a “professional” (I cringe slightly using this word here) biblical exegete (trained on the collegiate-level), probably knows common, sound exegetical methods. He is most likely aware of good and bad practices when it comes to interpreting texts. Common, basic, fundamental knowledge from one field often pervades through others. We could say some knowledge is highly transferable and accessible among educators, and even students. A biochemist may have an interest in biblical studies and thus finds and utilizes good exegetical methods. This is good.

Though, I’m clearly aware, that this is not always the case. Sadly, I’m sure there are even trained biblical exegetes who are not competent in biblical studies. Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘.......Whatever.' Right? I mean, who cares?

Well, for starters me.

While in Kenya, I was abruptly and absurdly confronted with shabby exegesis and--well, maybe I'll just tell you the story.

[Prelude Concludes]

Dan’s daughter, Danielle Stewart is a nurse and her knowledge and skills were a tremendous help. After all the administrative details, taken care of by our Kenyan pastors, our team was able to treat over 500 people from small towns and rural villages over several days through our medical clinics.

If I am remembering correctly, I attended three.

At each, our team was divided up. Some would pray for each person/s as they came in (which I did at the third), some would oversee the meds and another would take the patients' blood pressure and temperature. Danielle always helped the doctor. And that's what we called him. We worked with him at every clinic, husband to Rhoda, a principle. They were a dynamic duo for sure.

His skin was dark, and head round. Doctor was cheerful, always greeting with a bold smile and hearty handshake. It was difficult to not flash a big smile back.

At the last medical clinic I attended, three local events were taking place at the same time, leaving the church building we were working out of helplessly empty; nothing like the other clinics, packed full with sick, broken people waiting to see the doctor. Only a slow, steady trickle of people.

This gave us a lot of down time, time to sit and talk, to listen.

Bob wanted to speak with me one-on-one in the prayer room. When our conversation had slowed, I took leave and made my way toward the front of the building, where the stage was. It was only a couple inches higher than the normal floor. A foursquare flag had been pinned to the wall behind the stage. Dan had brought it on a prior trip.

To the right was a small coffee table surrounded by plastic chairs. Sitting was Danielle, Maddie, Lyndsey and the Doctor. Eventually, Regan would make his way over as well, but not soon enough.

I was curious what was going on. The conversation brewing sounded serious, although Doctor has a very disarming quality about him. His glee and smile put you at ease quite naturally. You feel welcome around him, to just be yourself, because he certainly is. He was doing the talking and as I sat down in the middle of his speel he caught me up to speed. Little did I know, Doctor was spewing fightin’ words, theologically that is.

He began by telling us that he had talked with some biblical studies students at some study. The content of their conversation consisted of the second coming of Jesus. Ok, great.

*Wait for it, wait for it......*

And the third!?

Come again?! I shouted in my mind. Did you say the third coming of Jesus? Yes, yes he did.

My trust in Doctor quickly shriveled and reflected in my face and posture. I scowled. Doctor, sensing my hostility, continued quite elaborately, all while smiling, going on and on about how Christians for the last 2,000 years, essentially, got it wrong. He quoted, with surprising precision, passages from the prophets and connected them with this statement of Jesus and that line from Paul.

I was trying to keep up with his "logic" until I had enough when he unabashedly linked two references of 'clouds' in the NT. In Matthew 24 and 26 Jesus spoke of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and glory. Doctor--though I was somewhat lost in a labyrinth of screwy exegesis and heresy--proclaimed that these clouds were the same clouds in Hebrews 12:1.

Yaaa, that's not cool and I'm definitely not okay with this. And so I said so. I remember not caring what-so-ever about the rest of his argument. I cut him off and called him out and maybe rather sternly, all amongst his little congregation. Regan had now joined the group and was listening.

I told him he was making exegetical heaps, big ones! And that his hermeneutics were crumbling, at best. I told him I would not go to his (hypothetical) Bible study because he didn't know what he was talking about! I was kind of harsh, but I knew I could be. Doctor's glee and cheer never diminished. He just laughed it off, as if he made a mistake and fell off his theological bike. To justify himself, he made a comment about how he hadn't taken Dan's classes. That was the truth! Nor had he taken Jim's, Mark's or Michael's :)

Though I rebuked him in the company of many witnesses, he never recanted. And I don't know if, since then, he has repented of his exegetical depravity. A few of us joked about it later on. I was like Doctor's doctor, for his theology; it was sick. All this had an ironic twist, considering our setting.

There are some I expect this kind of failure from: the uneducated or ignorant, the young and callow, the fundamentalist. But not a doctor, even if in Kenya. I mean, sure, ya, it's kind of funny; a third coming of Christ. But in reality, this is just good ole' fashion doctrine error, exegetical failure and bad theology.

Knowing how to study the Bible is important and I for one am thankful, because of little moments like these, for my education in biblical studies. I care about God, people, theology (and how to do it) too much to sit by while people make mistakes that I can help fix. This is important stuff, so don't neglect what you know whether it's a lot or not. Study Scripture, and study well. And the next time someone tries to convince you and others that Jesus is coming a third time--again again--tell him, in love, to shut it!

June 18, 2012

Why Does the Writer Write?

"Because one can't not write. Because he has to. It is that simple... The writing is not for fame, money, or notoriety, but to fulfill a more personal need, the need to find out what one is thinking, the need to put it down so that it can be dealt with, the need to codify emotion." - Jane Piirto in Understanding Creativity

Rowan Williams, it would seem, concurs with this understanding of the act of writing as a self-discovery of sorts, a knowing by doing: "you only discover what you have to say in the doing of it."

June 16, 2012

Post-Kenya Notebook: Elliot

Tall, dark, handsome and an epic preacher? He could've been on television with a voice like that. He introduced himself as Elliot.

He was dressed different from the other Kenyans; by western standards, better. His clothes fit his body, were of higher quality and he matched and looked cohesive. Most of the other pastors didn't.

I first saw him standing along the left margin during one of the crusades. He was next to our Kenyan pastor friends. But I immediately didn't recognize him. A head taller than the rest and good-looking, I would shift my eyes every so often to look at him, as if studying to understand, analyzing to draw conclusions (I am finding out that I am nearly always wrong).

There were always Kenyan pastors popping up and stopping by. He was probably just another one.

After the main sermon--and yes, differentiating is necessary since there were, sometimes, many--Elliot, who I had yet to meet, approached the stage after being introduced as the revival meeting preacher. The church in Naro Moru conducted night revival meetings even after the long crusades. Those dire-hard Kenyans never stop! I even heard of them going far beyond midnight, into the wee hours of the morning. I couldn't understand. I would of fallen over dead.

He stepped up onto the shabby wood pieces, or what were supposed to be stairs. They flexed toward the ground under the weight of each of his steps. He was handed the microphone. Then he preached.

His preaching was different. I noticed right away. He shouted as if perfectly mimicking those crazy charismatic televangelists, those who seem to get way to excited about every single thing they say, as if normal conversational tone was for wimpy pastors. But his style wasn't obnoxious. Elliot struck a delicate balance. From where did he get this? This wasn't typical Kenyan rhetoric. His craft was fine-tuned and polished.

Though he made me upset at his bypassing of the children who wanted to know more about Jesus (see my previous post), since he was focused on the adults responding, the following night we talked. I preached that evening at the crusade. After stepping down off the stage, he stopped me, encouraged and thanked me. I was surprised. I judged him to be more arrogant.

His deportment was open, thoughtful and present; very refreshing. He was good at talking, on stage and off. I asked a simple question and this propelled us into the unraveling of a sliver of his story.

Elliot attended college in the U.S., some Bible college in Georgia. This made a ton of sense. I understood where his preaching style, social q's and mannerisms and fashion sense came from.

Listening intently, I ate up his words, his story. He told me how his pastor, while attending school in the U.S., didn't let him preach, though he was fully capable. Elliot worked lousy jobs. This meant lousy pay. He told me how he felt humiliated when he, along with his wife and two young daughters, lost their house and became homeless because of his low-paying jobs. God gives and takes away was the lesson Elliot claimed God had taught him.

I was floored by his honesty and simplicity.

In a foreign country, with his family, pursuing education which would help him in his future ministry, and he loses his job (which was crap anyway)?

He continued to tell me that all this was only after a long silence on the part of God. He longed for the divine voice. Alas, nothing. Perfect reticence. Like Abraham, Elliot was in a strange new world (imagine moving from Kenya to the U.S.). Jobless. Homeless. On the receiving end of nothing from God. Humiliated.

Here was a man I just met, a man I "understood" (in my ill-percieved mind) as full of himself. This wasn't true. He was honest. He was vulnerable. And He was openly breaking in front of me.

By God's graces, eventually, Elliot and his family saved up enough money to buy a nice home back in Kenya, the land of his birth, the place of his mission.

Was it difficult moving back to Kenya? Why did you want an education in the U.S.? What is ministry like in your city? What is your philosophy of ministry? How do you live your life? I had more questions for him. Questions I'll probably never get to ask.

"Every person has a lesson for you to learn, but it's your job to discover what that is." - Bob Horn

June 12, 2012

Motivation for Writing

[The divulsing continues...]

I stare at a blinking cursor, hating sitting here, frustrated at my failing brain. Why can’t I think of a single good sentence?

This is the epitome of my writing life. And sometimes, so you don’t throw in the towel, though it sounds so good, you need motivation, a pep-talk from an elder to keep you going. So sometimes I read this, Ben Myers’ thirteen theses on writing, as if he is talking right to me.

But often my gullibility fails me and I don't believe that Ben Myers is actually talking to me. In this case, I have to pull a king David. I encourage myself.

June 9, 2012

Life as Poetry: A Red-Headed Step Child

"...embodied poems which capture their imagination otherwise." - James K. A. Smith

I am currently in the middle of a collection of posts reflecting on my time in Kenya, but I have this red-headed step child who needs my attention now; hence this post. This divulsing shouldn't be long.

My friend Ben, who shares with me a ferocious interest in tussling with taken-for-granted Christian truths and practices, and I often talked, both early in the morning and late at night, about the nature of Scripture, biblical studies, hermeneutics, science, evolution and homosexuality amongst any and everything else while at school this past year (not that we are "qualified" to speak about all of them); though his capacity for highly-energetic and mentally-straining talks about complex issues far surpasses mine.

While I enjoy it while I can, I lose steam rather quick. Then I retreat. This is fun for Ben since at this point my responses are minimal at best and I usually won't tell him when I'm barely listening to his analysis of some super-interesting academic discussion on conception and embryos and its implications for Christians and abortion. In other words, as far as thick conversation goes, his gas tank holds twelve gallons while mine holds four.

From time to time, during our talks, I would bring up one of my favorite Christian scholars, James Smith. Though my "interaction" (me reading his words) with him is limited—I've read three of his eleven books—I thoroughly enjoy what I have experienced: solid, creative Christian scholarship relevant for life "on the ground" all in lucid prose. *Sigh*

Ben is now somewhat familiar with him. Smith is known, by Ben, as the "Pentecostal Calvinist" (read more here). He is a strange yet friendly "coming together" of two worlds usually separated by a sizeable distance.

It wasn't long ago I was reading a post of Smith's on his blog Fors Clavigera. The post was sparked by an article by Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. Smith wrote (here) a few sentences reflecting on a quote of Hauerwas'. Overall, nothing about any of this was unusually luring. Well, all apart from this one half-sentence that would eventually lodge itself deep in my mind. James Smith wrote, "…embodied poems which capture their imagination otherwise."


Smith was writing about embodying a way of life that gives something different to the world, a way of life that envelops an alternative mode-of-being; and in this instance, a mode to help imagine differently the understanding of the life of sex and its place in Christianity, particularly among youth.

But the context I don't really care about, necessarily. This string of words does something for me. I read it and reread it. I thought about it; then thought about it again.

I recently returned from Kenya. And one night after dark I walked down a path at our hotel to the large grass field where baboons would play in the morning. I do what I often do when I'm near grass fields at night. I stood in the middle of it and preached. I preached about this line, about being a walking, talking, breathing poem that draws people in to imagine a different world, a different life, one transformed by Christ. I mean, I go all out. I rock back and forth and use my hands and imagine an audience. This time, like normal, was youth.

Why do I like this phrase so much? I don't know. I suppose it's an interesting metaphor: person as poem, life as poetry.

Maybe following Jesus could be like giving a good poem a body.

I mean, what are some responses to great poetry? I imagine a woman floored by the beauty of its articulation or a weeping man who's found words that sympathize with his own personal grief. Poems make people stop. They inspire. They're read, then forgotten. Then reread as if for the first time. Like a piece of art or warm meal, they bring you in. People return to them again and again and discover truth in them. As the profession of the depressed and the madman, poetry offers the world something raw, something devastating, something healing.

I can't help but dream about this phrase, as if a subtitle for Christ's bride: the Church: an embodied poem to capture imaginations otherwise.

June 5, 2012

Post-Kenya Notebook: What About These Kids?

This post is about stewarding what ya got. I thought I'd give you a heads up.

I'm not a big fan of the word 'crusade;' for obvious reasons. Dictionary.com spells out my reasoning in three definitions, each just as pleasant as the last.

1. Any of the military expeditions undertaken by the Christians of Europe in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries for the recovery of the Holy Land from the Muslims.

2. Any war carried on under papal sanction.

3. Any vigorous, aggressive movement for the defense or advancement of an idea, cause, etc.

Whoever thought (thinks) that 'crusade' was (is) a brilliant, catchy name for anything Christian was (still is) sadly mistaken. Alas, this is what we called, following our fierce Kenyan leaders, the evening evangelistic meetings we participated in. I want to say there were nine in total, five in Naro Moru and four in another town. I can't remember the name.

Basically, every service in Kenya is, by American standards (which I'm not saying are right—they are just what I've been shaped by), long! Being an American in Kenya means you practice patience. You don't have an option, sorry.

This was the crusades. Typically, there would be a sea of kids awaiting our arrival in our white 15ish passenger vans. They would point, jumping up and down, as if on command, with utter thrill. Some dressed in what we would use for rags, maybe. If their clothes had words, more often than not they were English. If I found myself surrounded by a crowd of children and didn't know what to do, since they just stare at you waiting to be entertained, often I would point and say the words on their clothing.

Vanessa and I were usually the only ones who didn't have kids hanging all over our bodies, using our limbs as embodied playgrounds. I don't mind kids, but I'm not a big fan and having a hundred pat my head and caress my hand. Although, sometimes I did give in. How could I resist a girl who, with the most sincere look on her face, simply grabs my hand to hold, as if it's completely normal to hold a strange man's hand? You can't.

The crusades were always days in a row, so more and more kids would come each night. And each night we would be a little more tired than the night before.

By the third crusade I started noticing something strange; tons of kids (heaps and piles of them) and hardly any adults. Many of the pastors attempted to bring the few adults scattered along the margins in by asking them to come closer all the while needy, dirty kids were bountiful. Yet, we continued to address only the adults, catering the program and messages to them.

It got particularly noticeable and noticeably peculiar when a local preacher with a boomingly deep voice made an alter call of sorts as the final piece to a much overdue ending to one of the crusades. His words were convincing and when he asked people who wanted to know Jesus to raise their hand and come forward, without any hesitation, a number of kids did just that.

It was twilight now, so their arms started blending into the falling darkness. But I saw them. They were right there in front of the preacher listening intently. The team and I were standing with our backs to the stage waiting to pray for people. But I was upset. This guy overlooked the kids—a perfect negligence—with not a tinge of guilt in his voice, not even realizing his crime. He was focused only on the adults responding. I contemplated giving him a piece of my mind afterwards. I didn't. I talked to him the next night though. I didn't tell him what I thought the night before. I was out of line though I still thought I was right. Besides, he was a good man with a gracious heart and listening ear. I respected that.

For me, this situation came down to stewardship. What had God given us? Well, not much; a cheap PA system, failing generator, lopsided stage, a few adults and a multitude of children. It would be devastating to realize we wasted what we had, like the foolish servant of the master in Jesus' parables. Remember? He dug a hole.

Thankfully, redemption found us. That same night, I told Dan about my concern with the kids. He felt the same. And so a week later, at the second location, he told me that I was going to preach and it was going to be for the kids. All right! I was honored with a great privilege of preaching to the children about Samuel, when he heard the voice of the Lord and anointed David as king. This second story was so fitting. David was overlooked by his own family like the kids with the preacher.

I told them God doesn't overlook. In fact, he underlooks. The ones that get overlooked are seen by God because, well, he sees the heart, that which is underneath and hidden. If dirty, needy, street kids want to be set apart for God like Samuel, then, gosh darn it, no man should get in the way! So move!