Thursday, November 27, 2014

In His Courts

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of teaching a class on Leadership. While it is a subject with which I am fairly comfortable, it was a big challenge for me because all of the teaching was done in French. I prepared for months, had lots of help, and benefitted from much prayer. And (thanks be to God!) in the end I actually had a lot of fun and it seems like the teaching was well received. 

I asked the students to create a Biblical model of leadership
based on the principals that I outlined
This lovely classroom is at a retreat center near Grenoble, where 65 women gathered to begin a two-year training program that is designed to equip and empower them for ministry. The program is called Zoé, and it is a ministry offered by LifeSprings International. Students attend classes just three Saturdays a year over two years, and in between sessions they have homework, coaching, and a minnistry project that they must complete. LifeSprings has been providing this type of training in Europe for several years, but this was the first time that it was being offered in French.

Students hard at work on the their models
while I survey their progress
Women ranged in age from early 20s to mid 60s, each one passionate about the work of Christ and his call on their lives. Most of them work full-time jobs while volunteering in key ministry positions. 

Holding one group's model of leadership
so that a student could present it to the class
I taught the same course to students at a Torchbearer's Bible College that same week. Also in French. And for those of you wondering why Hawkeye Pierce  is peering over my shoulder it is because I used a three-minute clip from the TV series M*A*S*H in my teaching.

In some ways, teaching a class on Leadership is no big deal. In other ways, for me, it was monumental. Because there was a time, not too long ago, when French was such a struggle that I honestly wondered if God would ever use me in this way again. And to tell you truth, I got to the place where it would have been perfectly fine with me if I never got asked to speak again. I used to need to do this stuff to feel validated and important. By stripping me of my gifts for a season, I learned to bask in the unmerited love of the Father. Now when I teach, I am all about Him and the ones I am called to serve, and I'm no longer seeking validation for myself. I used to be building the Kingdom of Jenn. How ashamed I am to say it! Now I'm building the Kingdom of God. Better is one day His courts than thousands eslewhere! 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Shallows

I recently spent a week attending some classes for my master's program at the Portland, OR campus of George Fox University. Since I went to high school in Lake Oswego and spent my early married years in the same area, I was in my own stomping grounds. I had a GPS with me, but after a couple of days it malfunctioned, and I quickly realized that I actually had no need for the device. I was in familiar territory, able to navigate from the recesses of my own memory, even though I hadn't lived in the area for over 15 years. 

Fast forward one month. David had gone to Paris for the day, and when he returned I had to pick him up from a nearby train station. The station is in the town of Amboise, about 20 minutes from Loches. Though I've been there many times, I would've been completely lost without my GPS. We've lived in the same house for 3 years now, and the only place I drive without the GPS is the local grocery store. 

Granted, I do a lot less driving overall in France in that I did in the States. But still, the difference in my ability to navigate here is a little disconcerting. I've never HAD to get around in France without a GPS, and as a result, I have become entirely dependent upon it. Which kind of makes me feel like I'm getting dumber. And then I remember that I've learned a new language in that same time frame, so maybe I shouldn't reduce my intelligence to my capacity for navigation.

Nevertheless, the experience got me thinking about the effects of modern technological advances on the workings of the human brain. I've been reading a book on the subject, and frankly, I find the research to 1.) Accurately reflect my experience and 2.) Prove that the dangers are real.

In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr explains how different technological advances have changed not only how humans interact with the world and each other, but how our interaction with technology can actually change us. For example, consider how the invention of the clock changed human behavior. Carr writes, "In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to wake up, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock. We became a lot more scientific, but we became a bit more mechanical as well."

Looking back through history, how humans have stored and shared knowledge has evolved with technological advances. Originally knowledge was passed on orally. Eventually writing was invented, and a few elite members of society were given the privilege of learning to read and write. Scrolls or tablets belonged to either very wealthy people or they were communal property, stored in places such as churches or monasteries. For reasons of limited access and limited education, reading was a public activity, always done orally so that many could benefit.

It wasn't until the invention of the printing press in 1439 that books became both portable and inexpensive, thereby giving access to the masses. That technological advance was so significant that many scholars were skeptical. They believed that such indiscriminate access to information could have a negative effect on society as a whole. 

The printing press didn’t just change WHO could read and WHAT could be read, it changed HOW humans engaged in the act of reading. Instead of being a public activity, for the first time in history, reading became a personal and private activity. People were more reflective, contemplative, and engaged in the information that was available to them.

The printing press also changed how people wrote. Not only did written structure become more concise and less repetitive, people were willing to write different things. There are some things that one might not dare to read aloud around a campfire, but would delight to read at home alone. Thus, the reason for the lament over the ills of the printing press.

Fast forward 550 years. Passing by inventions such as radio and television, we arrive at the age of the Internet. Like books, radio and TV are one-way media--information can only flow in one direction. The Internet changed not only how we are sharing knowledge, but made knowledge sharing bi-directional--or rather multi-directional as many can interact with the same subject simultaneously. 

While reading books is a slow, linear process, reading on the Internet has become multi-dimensional, with links offering unlimited distractions. In fact, the Net is essentially one long stream of distractions. And while all of that input and information is stimulating, it is changing the way humans work and think. Here are just a few of the shocking conclusions that Carr draws from results of numerous research endeavors:
"The Net's cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively." 
"In reading online, Maryanne Wolf says, we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible. We revert to being 'mere decoders of information.' Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged." 
"We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider."
Attentiveness, memorization, and deep thinking are becoming lost arts--and their loss has critical implications for our ability to be creative and innovative. But it is not only our intellect that suffers. It turns out that our ability to show empathy and compassion is also diminished by distractions. 

So The Shallows has me rethinking not only how much time I spend online, but how I spend that time. I find that I can hardly sit through an entire movie at home without checking email, playing Words with Friends, or browsing Facebook. The distractions don't have to come looking for me, I go looking for them. And now that I know that such behavior is actually re-wiring my brain, I'm concerned. And I plan to do something about it. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Popping the Cork!

Tonight we are celebrating! David is going to be flying again.

We learned today that David's request for a new visa has been approved! He is being granted a three-year card that will give him the right to work in France. 

Back in June he was approached by a man who owns an air taxi service in Orléans. The business owner has planes that are all US registered, and David's licenses allow him to fly a plane anywhere in the world as long as  it has a US tail number. David will be employed to fly individuals (typically business owners) to and from various locations on a contract basis. He will not have steady hours, though he will be able to take and turn down work as he chooses, and he should be able to set his schedule weeks in advance. He hopes to work just one or two days a week--which would go a long way in helping to pay my educational expenses without taking David away from his ministry here. So the whole family benefits!

Join us in praising God for this provision. David loves to fly! The fact that he will earn a few euros on the side is icing on the cake. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Kind of Cool

There was a time in my life when the idea of crossing oceans on planes and Europe on trains would have sounded downright dreamy. Now that I'm living it--well, let's just say that while I love every minute of it, it's not always what I expect. 

Take yesterday. I was on my way to the Rhône-Alpes region of France, where I will be spending the weekend ministering in a variety of ways. The first train that I took was a high speed train that went from Tours to Lyons in three short hours. My next train was a regional train, that made several stops in small villages between Lyon and Grenoble. And then in Grenoble, this ancient inter-cities train pulled up on the track.

It was rusty and covered in graffiti, and then engine made smells that seemed to indicate distress of some kind. It was not at all what I expected. And definitely not glamorous. Rickety is more like it. I actually questioned the wisdom of getting on such a train, but what choice did I have? The ticket had been bought, and twenty minues down the line, someone would be waiting for me.

That is a pretty good metaphor for the missionary life. We live life between two places, and most of the time we keep going in the journey simply because we bought the ticket and we trust that God has someone waiting for our arrival. The how and the when and the where don't always look safe or reliable, but we get on the train just the same. And in the end, we look back and realize that the very thing that seemed scary or even unsafe, was actually kind of cool. And we're glad to have had the experience.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Among Us

After being tempted for 40 days in the desert, Jesus began teaching in Synagogues throughout Galilee. And then he went to the synagogue in Naazareth--his hometown.

Jesus stood before the assembly to read. Luke tells us that he was handed the book of Isaiah. Jesus didn't choose the book, but he chose the passage. And he read these words that had been written about him more than 500 years before he graced the earth with his presence:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
19 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

Then he sat down. But all eyes were still on him.

And there, among his people, sitting in their midst, he says, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

Next, Jesus will tell them some rather shocking news, but he doesn't do it from the pulpit. He doesn't say hard things from a distance, as if to place himself above the crowd. He is Emmanuel, even in this moment. He is God with us.

And so he continues his message, speaking to friends, neighbors, family members, and ancient rabbis who had taught him to read scripture in the first place. I imagine his sincerity, and his sadness. He knows that they are not going to like what he has to say. He anticipates the coming rejection. And yet he speaks the words that will enrage this crowd so severely that they will attempt that very day to throw him off of a cliff. Friends, neighbors, and family members, no less.

Jesus begins to talk about some well-known stories from the Torah. First he reminds them of the great famine during the days of Elijah. He says that while there were plenty of hungry widows in Israel, Elijah was sent to the aid of Zarapeth, who was in Sidon. Then Jesus tells them that in the days of Elisha there were lepers in Israel, but Elisha only healed Naaman, the Syrian."

And for that, they tried to kill him.

It seems to be a rather strong reaction to the retelling of some stories right out of thier own scriptures. But Jesus didn't just tell the stories, he pointed out something significant about those stories. Something that had perhaps gone unnoticed in prior readings. And Jesus' obsevations favored the "outsiders" over the "insiders."

I can't quite come up with a modern day equivalent to what happened, and in many ways it would be wrong to pull this account out of its historical context. But this gist of it is this: Jesus told the religous regulars that God cares about those who are not part of their congregation. He told them that healing and freedom and hope were being poured out on those whom they had scorned and rejected. And the good church people went postal.

I struggle with this story--because I am one of the good church people. I am a Christian "insider." When I read this story, I picture myself sitting on the second pew on the left hand side of the synagogue, feeling smug in my chosen-ness.

I begin to wonder if Jesus has turned his back on his own people, and then I remember that he sitting among them. Counting himself as one of them. One of us.

He isn't drawing dividing lines, he's erasing them. No more were there to be "insiders" and "outsiders." No more us and them.

I think that was his point.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ten Totally Trivial Tidbits

  1. Friday morning I walked to prayer, as usual, at 7 a.m. After morning prayer, as usual, I remained at church to do Pilates with some friends. As I slipped off my shoes, I noticed something most UNUSUAL. I was wearing two different shoes. I thought I was over my exhaustion, but perhaps I'm still a little bit tired.
  2. I am still buying apples as if Graham were living here. Graham is an apple-addict, consuming, on average, two or three apples per day. He has done that since he was like 5 years old. So yesterday I went to the grocery store, loaded up on apples, and when I got home I discovered that the fruit basket was still overflowing with apples from my last shopping trip. Stuff like that makes Graham's absence so very tangible. I miss him. Meanwhile, I better start making pies.
  3. Chandler preached his first sermon a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, it was when I was in the States, so I missed it! But it sounds like it went well. Our church is doing a series on the Ten Commandments, so David assigned Chandler the commandment that says "Honor your father and mother." 
  4. Jack and Gemma have fleas. Again. Or still. I'm afraid fleas are my new normal.
  5. I've been increasing the number of miles that I run--which, you know, seemed like a good thing to do after running the same distance (three miles) for the past seventeen years. I'd hate to get in a rut. But I've somehow injured my hip, and I'm not sure what to do about it. The pain isn't bad--so I keep running. But it has persisted for three weeks now, so I'm also a bit concerned. Any advice?
  6. I love seminary, and I love most of the books that I read for my classes, but I am feeling deeply deprived of fiction. I am taking recommendations for FICTION books to read over the Christmas holiday. What delicious, well-written, stories should I read? Go!
  7. I forgot to bring corn syrup back from the States--a critical ingredient for the caramel recipe that my family loves this time of year. Bummer!
  8. When I was a child, I went to a summer camp in the Texas Hill Country called "His Hill." It was there where I first heard a woman preach the Bible, and I think it was during those summer months that I first began to feel a call to ministry. His Hill was run by Torchbearer's International, which is a Bible Training Ministry. Our camp counselors were all Bible students in the program. Are you still with me? There is a point. I promise. Next week I will be teaching a Leadership Class at a Torchbearer's Bible School in France. How cool is that? 
  9. We haven't yet figured out if we will be celebrating Thanksgiving this year, but we need to decide soon because we have to give the Turkey farmer enough time to fatten up a bird for us. And yes, I realize that is a first-world problem.
  10. David and I had a great meeting with the president of our denomination this week. We have some direction on our future ministry opportunities. Please pray for wisdom ad direction, as there are three options before us. I'll fill you in on the details soon!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Holy, holy is he

In my Old Testament class we have been reading through Exodus, Leviticus, and the beginning of Numbers. I've read this material before, but I read it this time wearing an "academic" hat. I was trying to be unbiased, analytical, and careful, hoping to have fresh insights and a new perspective.

But the reality is, these texts are challenging. God's behavior is somewhat shocking, and his anger seems to be, well, out of control. At one point the Israelites push him to his limit, and he declares to Moses a desire to wipe them all out and start over. Moses, by reminding God of his own character and his own promises, talks God off the ledge--and God repents (Exodus 34:14). The Scriptures actually use that word. Which doesn't indicate that God had sinned in anyway, because "repent" simply means "to turn 180°." In other words God was going towards an annihilation scenario, and he changes his direction and chooses to rescue rather than destroy the wayward Israelites.

Still, the idea of God “blowing his top” is unsettling to us New Testament believers who like to view God through the lens of Jesus. It is not wrong to understand God’s character through the person of Jesus Christ. After all Jesus said that if we have seen him we have seen the Father (John 14:9). But then what do we do with the Old Testament texts that show God to be angry enough to kill off his chosen people.

And it’s not like this is a novel concept, because God had already started over with Noah. In other words, the God to whom Moses was talking had a history of destroying people and starting again.

So for weeks I wrestled with these texts, getting into heated discussions with my classmates. We were each dealing with the God of the Wilderness Wanderings in different ways. Some tended to think that the Old Testament writers must have gotten it wrong. Believing that these descriptions of God were not accurate, these classmates suggested demoting these texts in our theology. I couldn’t go there.

Yet, I wasn’t sure where to go.

Then I went to a worship service. As I sang “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain. Holy, holy is he,” I felt big tears well up in my eyes. In that moment it hit me. All of that anger that God shows in the Old Testament, that righteous, red-hot anger, did not just evaporate one day. That anger was poured out on Jesus, when he bore the sins of the whole world on the cross. God restrained himself from expressing his anger just until he could take it upon himself. And he did it because he longs to be gracious to us.

But if I minimize the anger of God in the Old Testament, I also minimize the work of Christ on the cross. If I am tempted to say, “God wasn’t THAT mad” or that “sin isn’t THAT bad” I misunderstand both his holiness and my wretchedness. And I miss the profundity of the reconciliation that Jesus, our mediator, makes possible.

The point of the cross is that Jesus paid it all. I’ve always understood the reality that Jesus took on my sin. But I’ve failed to recognize that in taking on my sin, Jesus also took on the wrath of God—God’s holy and righteous anger about my sin.

And so I wept. As a result of deep, intellectual and theological exegesis I had a deeply emotional spiritual experience. In such moments the experience of Seminary becomes highly personal. Head knowledge informs heart knowledge, and I am moved.