Monday, August 31, 2015

our focus on nastier sins and "worse" sinners

Enjoyed a meditation from Simone Weil in Bread and Wine this morning...

She opens by reflecting on the profound evil represented by the cross, especially because of Jesus' association with it. But then she moves to the prominent people behind the cross-- not "monsters", but "ordinary" men. 

Pilate was "a coward" who "cared more about his comfortable position than he did about justice". Caiaphas was "the admired and revered religious leader of the most religious people in that ancient world...a devout and sincerely religious man". But he was "too rigid...thought he had the whole truth" and would promote the damage (and even death) of people who disagreed. Judas disagreed with Jesus' approach and "couldn't wait" for God's timing. Even the carpenter was willing to participate in an unjust system-- at the least, "playing with victims" who merely deserve death-- for a job and a buck. 

As Weil concludes: "These were the things that crucified Jesus...not wild viciousness or sadistic brutality or naked hate, but the civilized vices of cowardice, bigotry, impatience, timidity, falsehood, and indifference-- vices all of us share, the very vices which crucify human beings today." 

Similarly, we like to focus on "nastier" sins and "worse" sinners. It helps keep the heat off of us-- or so it seems. In Amos' day, it was easier to pound the sins of the pagans. (Don't you love the masterful way in which God leads him to convict the sinners in his home country?!) For Paul, the famous passage in Romans 1 on homosexual conduct serves, at least in part, as a useful way to convince us that we're all sinners-- on his way to Romans 6:23-- that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. (Accept the gift, please!!) 

And today, it's still the same. In politics, it's usually the sins of the other party, while we ignore or downplay our own party's sins. (Don't you love seeing that on FB!) In everyday life, since Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, we want to avoid blame and point to the (supposedly greater) sins of others. In terms of theodicy and eschatology, we want God to come to earth to intervene to deal with the sinners. But many of us don't want to stop our own sin-- or want God to intervene so forcefully on account of our own sins. 

In each case, it's the same. Don't fool yourself into thinking you don't sin-- or that your sins are "mild". Every day, we do serious damage and injustice to those around us. Accept the grace of God as payment for those sins-- and then let that grace live within you in your daily life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

nuggets from Kathleen Norris' The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work"

I've always enjoyed Kathleen Norris, including this small meditation on mundane and never-ending household tasks, spiritual disciplines, and worship. 

On seeing a Catholic family get-together: The marvelous abundance and seemingly bottomless hospitality were overwhelming to my timid Protestant soul–the feasting! The drinking! The toddlers, dogs and cats contending for scraps underneath the picnic tables and the family potluck the night before the wedding! Enough for everyone; more than enough. Amazing. (p. 1-2) 

Observing a priest during communion: "Look at that! The priest is cleaning up! He's doing the dishes!" (2) And then, "homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink. The chalice, which had held the very blood of Christ, was no exception." (3) 

But laundry and worship are repetitive activities with a potential for tedium, and I hate to admit it, but laundry often seems like the more useful of the tasks. But both are the work that God has given us to do." (29)

Revolutionary Road (and still trying to figure out the 1950s)

In some circles, the 1950s are hailed as a peak of American civilization. Of course, this ignores the manner in which African-Americans were treated during that time. When brought up, the point is quickly granted before the wistful look re-emerges-- with that one exception. 

Still, one wonders the extent to which it's true-- or to be more exact, the extent to which it's complete. The parents of the 1950s gave us the children of the 1960s-- and for purveyors of the 1950s-near-utopia, this is problematic, given their view of the 1960s. 

It's a more visceral and subjective concern, but when times and people are "too nice", it worries me a lot. A similar mistake rears its head in imagining Jesus Christ to be largely a nice guy who jumped on the cross and then conquered death and encouraged us to be nicer to each other. 

Attendance at churches and self-identification as a "Christian" peaks during this time as well. But to what extent was this a bastardization of Christianity as "civil religion"-- a syncretistic merger of benign morality, belief in "God" and America, opposition to the godless USSR and its communist leaders, a desire to return (or at least go) to something pleasant (after the Depression and WWII), and so on? 

In our time, it is said that Christianity is fading, but the more likely description is that nominal and cultural Christianity are fading-- while discipleship and biblical Christianity will remain constant, or likely, grow (as it is, generally, around the world). 

I was interested to read this essay by Janie Cheaney in World, including the introduction it gave me to the Richard Yates' novel, Revolutionary Road. She underlines an aspect of the novel-- and presumably one part of the 1950s experience: that the niceness of the 1950s was, for some people, oppressive to them. They wanted to experience more than "the suburbs" and consumer amenities; they wanted purpose and meaning. In a time of relative peace and abundance, the struggle moved from survival to larger issues that were not being met by the culture and "the World". 

I'm happy to report that the book was well-written, but its themes are depressing and the approaches of its characters are fruitless and pathetic in the full sense of the word. DiCaprio and Winslet starred in the 2008 film adaptation of the book, but I don't recall hearing anything about it. Has anyone seen the film? 


This interview in CT with David Brooks adds some flavor on the same era and similar ideas: 

Q: You note that since roughly World War II, we’ve lived in a different “moral country.” What’s changed?
A: Most people believe the big cultural shift happened in the 1960s. But when I investigated the books and culture of the late 1940s, I found that the transformation happened then. There were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful....
Q: How did losing sight of human weakness pave the way for what you call today’s “Big Me” culture?

A: We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high-school seniors, “Are you a very important person?” Back then, 12 percent said yes. Gallup asked the same question in 2005, and 80 percent said yes.


Monday, August 17, 2015

Sanders and Trump

Sanders and Trump are similar but different...

Sanders is tapping into the left-wing of the party and those who are bothered enough (on principle) by the mess of a Clinton candidacy.

Trump is tapping into the subset of the Tea Party which is bothered by immigration and trade-- and others who value celebrity and a non-PC approach to things.

Neither has a chance to win their party's nomination. The Sanders candidacy underlines one aspect of the weakness of Clinton-- and along with other, more profound weaknesses-- points to the likely triumph of Biden or another "mainstream candidate". The Trump candidacy will fade-- with his support either moving to other Tea-Partyish candidates or undermining them (if this transition takes too long).

In any case, I appreciate both of them being in there, even if they're both a hot mess on policy matters.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

review of Wesley Hill's "Spiritual Friendship"

Spiritual Friendship is the second book by Wesley Hill. I've read and enjoyed both. The first, Washed and Waiting, is autobiographical with a focus on his decision to live a celibate lifestyle as a Christian with a strong homosexual orientation. This book naturally follows the first: what is the role of friendship for him (and those like him)-- but then, by extension, for others in the Church?

Hill opens by noting the "freedom" of friendship among the various types of love (xiii). We don't choose our families of origin-- on either side of the equation. We can divorce, but you're still an ex-spouse to someone (and kids are likely involved). When one flirts and dates, the cool and rational often moves quickly to passion and something less than full-rationality/freedom. In contrast, circumstances certainly impact our range of friends, but we do get to choose our friends.

"Friendship is the freest, the least constrained, the least fixed and determined, of all loves...friendship is entirely voluntary, uncoerced, and unencumbered by any sense of duty or debt." And then quoting C.S. Lewis, it is "the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary". (xiii-xiv)

But this freedom can be abused as permission to avoid or limit the role of friendships in our lives. As an application of Galatians 5:1,13, we should be careful to use our freedom well. (14) "Perhaps that very freedom prevents us from exploring depths of friendship that can be attained only when we accept certain limits and constraints." (xiv)

This leads Hill to a number of provocative questions: "Should we think of friendship as based, above all, on personal preference?...Should we instead consider friendship more along the lines of how we think about marriage...as more stable, permanent, and binding that we often do?...If so, what needs to change about the way we approach it and seek to maintain it?" (xv).

Hill divides the book into two parts (xviii-xix). The first half covers the cultural background of friendship (and its recent degradation in Western societies); its history; and a theology of friendship. The second half opens with the intersection between eros and friendship, before moving to a discussion of how we can cultivate committed friendships-- individually and within the Church.

Citing work by Benjamin Myers, Hill notes various myths that argue against the value of friendship. "Reductive evolutionary biology and psychology, in which all human loves must be understood in terms of hard-wired self-interest, have little place for friendship." (13). (No problem. That just creates more fun and makes even more room for just-so stories in the ol' Evolution narrative!) And what is the productive social value of friendship vs. work, vocation and output (13)? It's "shocking lack of utility-- friendship isn't for anything in particular, such as procreation or productivity-- is precisely what makes friendship itself." (68)

Perhaps the key barrier is "the myth of sex"-- the idea that sex must be right around the corner from any intimate/deep friendship (8). Although a valid concern, it is not universal. Among heterosexuals, both its common reality and the myth can certainly bedevils friendships between men and women. For Hill and others with a homosexual orientation, the tension develops between those of the same sex. So, how does one pursue friendship without it devolving into sexual activity? Or for the cynic: can this be done at all? (8)

Along those lines, I like Hill's two epigraphs for chapter 4 (p. 65): "We cannot imagine existing in our culture without the haven of erotic partnership, because our capacity to belong together in more chaste ways is so limited." (Christopher Roberts) And "Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc." (GK Chesterton)

Since the end of my undergrad days (getting past that long dork phase I had), I've had reasonably deep friendships with men and women. At times, it's led to modest temptations that were fended off through a combination of prayer, wisdom, and accountability. Before I was married, it was helpful to believe that celibacy was wisdom-- given that I follow a wise and benevolent God. Once I was married, it's helped to have a well-watered garden at home. It hasn't been perfect (in my heart), but I'd easily take that over the many sins of omission (and commission) that would be the alternative. 

For example, our first Sunday School at Southeast featured young married couples who didn't know how to negotiate their post-wedding relationships with those of the opposite gender. This led to some allergic reactions that were somewhere between amusing and sad. Or there's the all-too-common embrace of the "Billy Graham rule"-- a *complete* avoidance of being alone with pre-pubescents of the opposite gender. While good policy for church leaders (given what's at stake) and perhaps useful as a general principle for those who have special struggles in this realm, it's is (or should be) largely counter-productive for most disciples of Jesus-- at least those who are comfortable in the goodness of God's Kingdom. So, take care and practice wisdom, but avoid legalisms that unnecessarily stilt relationships. .

Back to same-sex relationships, Hill notes research where younger boys instinctively form close male friendships, describing those friendships to researchers in "surprisingly intimate terms" (9). But then as they get older, they are apparently acculturated into putting up boundaries, at least as they describe the relationships to others. They "find no cultural space for the friendship they once enjoyed." (10)

All that said, Hill does argue for a tension between deep friendship and romantic love-- male and female, homosexual and heterosexual. "If I get too close to X, will people think we're attracted to each other? Are we attracted to each other?" (10) Hill notes the frequent conclusion/assumption that friendship can be entirely separated from erotic love, but Hill disagrees, seeing a necessary tension there. "Eros isn't an alternative to friendship; it's one particular form that friendship can assume." (70)

As such, for Hill (at this point in life), as one with strong a homosexual orientation: "The question isn't so much whether my male friendships will involve some sort of romantic attraction. The question is how they will do so, and how my friends and I will choose to respond..." (78). He must "find male friends who wouldn't mind the challenges that come when a friend like me is attracted to them." (82) 

Sometimes, especially in what might merely be relational immaturity, this has resulted in heartache for Hill (92). Or maybe it's a lifelong thing for people who have committed to celibacy or are otherwise single. For straight people, I would imagine an on-going tension between friendship and sexual attraction with some friends of the opposite sex. In this, Hill finds solace and support in the example of Henri Nouwen's homosexual orientation (93ff) and in Lewis' heterosexual orientation with respect to his oldest and dearest friend, Arthur Greeves (77).

Remember that Hill is especially motivated on this topic because of his understanding of the full range of Scripture on homosexual orientation, marriage, sexuality, etc. Since he believes abstinence is God's will for those with homosexual orientations, he's looking for his place in this world; he's trying to make sense of his suffering; and he's trying to find purpose in his calling, 


Hill cites a helpful passage from CS Lewis in comparing his state to John 5's man who is born blind (74-75). We are not told why the man suffers, but we are told that its purpose was that the works of God should be made manifest in him. Likewise, *every* difficulty conceals a potential vocation from God. Sexual abstinence is a negative condition and cannot be the end of the matter. A la Eph 4:25-32, what is the positive to which one is called? Renunciations "can never be the final word. Rather, yielding up one thing is always about the embrace of another. A loss or a place of pain becomes a gateway into a greater benefit that one wouldn't have been able to find without the loss or pain." (75)

In particular, Hill wants "to explore the way my same-sex attractions are inescapably bound up with my gift and calling to friendship...how I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it is a doorway to blessing and grace." (79) Or "how my being gay might involve what a thoughtful friend of mine has called a special 'genius for friendship'...Might there be...a way in which gay people have, whether by natural inclinations or through childhood trial and error or some combination of the two (among other factors), a sort of enviable insight into how to foster same-sex friendships?" (80) 

I'm not sure why Hill limits this to same-sex friends here, since the stereotype one often hears is that gay men seem to be really good at being friends with straight women. (His focus in the book is same-sex friendships, but still...) As such, "I don't imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends...if I weren't gay." (81) Perhaps. Or again, perhaps it's a natural thing. In any case, "being gay can lead to being chaste, just as being straight can." (81). 

Hill cites the Eberhard/Bonhoeffer friendship and the letters exchanged-- where Eberhard notes that his letters went to Bonhoeffer's fiance and older brother, before him. Even though Eberhard was "closer than a brother" (literally and figuratively), their society recognized blood ties over depth of friendship as the metric by which such things were measured. (24). Of course, part of this is reasonable for the reason given above-- that friendship is, by its nature, based on freedom, with its tendency toward transitory relationships. But the point is still of interest: when should friendship supersede blood ties? 

Theologically, friendship is rated more highly than family in a key sense. Jesus stood common assumptions about family and friends on their head as he announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. Family-- especially one's immediate family-- certainly matters. But family is re-imagined in the NT to emphasize the "family of God"-- that we're adopted into His family. In Mark 3, Jesus defines His family as those who obey the Father-- more important than blood ties not accompanied by obedience. In John 15:15, Jesus calls his disciples "friends". Hill treats this discussion-- and its evolution from pre-Christian views-- at length (see: p. 46-58). 

"We Christians don't care too much about 'friendship' if it only means having acquaintances...we believe in friendship's transformation by the good news of God in Christ...not so much the abandonment of friendship as its revolution and friendship...took friendships based on preference and a pursuit of social status and made them about self-giving love...After Christ, friendship would never be the same." (60-61)

This reading even impacted liturgy for a long while. "Christians came to believe that the truest and most durable relationships were friendships that were sealed with the common participation in the Eucharistic body and blood of Christ. If blood is thicker than water, then Eucharistic blood is thickest of all." (36) Hill describes a rite called adelphopoiesis-- "brother-making"-- where friends would "wed" in "vows of friendship" of "public, communal significance" (28, 35, 37). Historian Alan Bray discovered evidence of these in 2003 and initially assumed it was a "long-forgotten historical precedent for modern same-sex marriage" (34), before figuring out that this rite celebrated deep friendship (between men or women) while the participants were married to others (35). 

Hill wrestles with those who might say it's good that these rites are obsolete now (40-41). Instead, he finds "hope in the possibility of vowed spiritual siblinghood. What we need now isn't disinterested, disembodied companionship. We need stronger bonds..." 

And not just for singles; married folks have the same needs (43). Hill shares a story where a Sunday School community had come together to support one of its members in need. The couple was also visited by secular friends who were amazed at how many friends they had. This sort of thing is uncommon in the World-- and too uncommon in the Church-- when its benefits can be so profound. 

Tonia and I have experienced the same thing through Southeast. Previously, it was through a rich experience with the Abundant Life Sunday School class at the main campus of SE. Now, it's through an aggregation of Christian friendships (including some from Abundant Life) at the So. IN campus of SE-- where there are only small groups, which tend to be quite limited in this regard. This Christian vision of friendship (and a vehicle to pursue this easily enough) has led us to a "promised land" of redeemed friendships with men and women-- husbands and wives striving for glorious marriages, trying to raise godly children, finding and pursuing our callings, and enjoying our Abundant Life in Jesus Christ. 

After speaking in such glowing terms about friendship, one might expect Hill to let it rest there-- even seeing friendship as a substitute for marriage. Although he says friendship is great/important and under-rated, he argues that it is still not marriage in chapter 5 (esp. p. 96-100). (As an aside, he also cites the research results on "reparative therapy" which promise relatively little hope for changing one's orientation [p. 73].) Friendship "doesn't solve the problem of loneliness so much as it shifts its coordinates. Just as marriage isn't a magic bullet for the pain of loneliness, neither is friendship." (98) In fact, biblically, friendship is often "linked to, or even defined by, death" and suffering in the life and ministry of Jesus (100). 

Hill closes by sharing a number prescriptions/recommendations for the pursuit of friendship by individuals and to foster that environment as a church in chapter 6. All of these are good reminders; none of these struck me as particularly insightful: admit the need; start small; start where you are; live in community; practice hospitality; and try to "stay" in place even when it requires some sacrifice.

Hill continues to be helpful as a sadly-radical voice in the wilderness on the topic of homosexuality and Wilderness. Hopefully, he won't be shouted down by the dominant voices in that arena. But here, on friendship, he has a word for all of us. May we follow him down the path of more robust friendships. 

review of Dorothy Sayers' "The Mind of the Maker"

I've blogged on Sayers a number of times. The most prominent: "Why Work?"; Creed or Chaos?; on Mary and Martha and women in general; on women and men; and some hilarious stuff on "men's/women's work". Here, I'm providing a review of her book, The Mind of the Maker.

Sayers starts with thoughts on "the law"-- the purpose of which, in the context of the book, is to lay out the differences between fact and opinion, objective vs. subjective, and so on. (She complains about common reading comprehension problems here. This allows her to continue apace with her primary thesis, rather than having the reader distracted by erroneous ideas of what she's trying to accomplish.)

In this first chapter, Sayers opens with a funny story (p. 1): A stranger to the university observes that students are inside their colleges by midnight and assumes that this is part of the nature of an undergraduate. In fact, "the law has quite a different source-- the College authorities." Should he conclude that the law is independent of student nature? No. In fact, "careful research would reveal that the law depends on considerable antecedent experience of undergraduate nature...[just] not based on it in the way the stranger assumed."

Sayers expands on the story by noting that the term "law" has two popular, but only-somewhat-related uses. There are arbitrary laws for particular circumstances that are "capable of being promulgated, enforced, suspended, altered or rescinded without interference with the general scheme of the universe" (3). And there are laws that "designate a generalized statement of fact...[which] cannot be promulgated, altered, suspended or broken at will" (4). The arbitrary laws can have "legitimate" authority if they agree with "popular opinion" sufficiently (7) and if they do not "run counter to the law of nature" (8).

As such, "There is a universal moral law, as distinct from a moral code, which consists of certain statements of fact about the nature of man; and by behaving in conformity with which, man enjoys his true freedom. This is what the Christian Church calls 'the natural law'. The more closely the moral code agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behaviour; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind and to produce the catastrophes called 'judgments of God'." (9) And although frequently conflated, "Christian morality comprises both a moral code and a moral law" (10).

Why does this matter for theology--and thus, practice? "There is a difference between saying: 'If you hold your finger in the fire you will get burned' and saying, 'if you whistle at your work I shall beat you, because the noise gets on my nerves'. The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling. This is the result of a confusion between arbitrary "law" and the "laws" which are statements of fact...Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. That is the fact; whether we like it or not, the universe is made that way." (12)


All that said, the bulk of the book is a discussion of the Trinitarian nature of art, writing, and the creative process-- and by analogy, a help in understanding the Trinitarian nature of God. She argues that "every work or act of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly": the Creative Idea, the Creative Energy/Activity, and the Creative Power (37). You can't have the work of creation without all three; the three are inter-related, but they are distinct. Later, she revisits the same idea in the context of writing in particular: the Book as Thought, Written, and Read (113-115).

On writing and its implications for what we know of God, His word, and The Word (Christ), Sayers notes a number of things:

-Words are an important but ultimately limited look into the the heart of the Author-- even in an autobiography. For us, while the Bible, Nature, and Jesus are crucial revelations to us about the character of God, they are still only dimly observed (90).

-A key difference between the Bible and other writing: "The leading part in this was played, it is alleged, by the Author, who presents it as a brief epitome of the plan of the whole work...Examining the plot of it, we observe at once that if anybody in this play has his feelings spared, it is certainly not the author." (129)

-Another feature of a good Writer/Artist is the freedom He wants for his "characters": He "never desires to subdue his work to himself but always to subdue himself to his work. The more genuinely creative he is, the more he will want his work to develop in accordance with its own nature, and to stand independent of himself." (130)

-Sayers' discussion of miracles was really helpful to me (78-83). What purpose do they serve? In which contexts and to what extent are they "cheap" plot devices? In a literary context, one measure of bad fiction is that problems in writing/plot are "fixed" by "miracles"-- a cul-de-sac is exited by suddenly removing a character or a circumstance. Intervention in a plot is certainly the prerogative of the author, but along the same lines: when would/should we expect God to do miracles? 

"The agents of the miraculous [for the writer are] conversion and coincidence...Yet it will not altogether do to say that neither conversion nor coincidence is ever permissible in a story. Both may legitimately be introduced on one condition, that is, that they are an integral part of the Idea. If it is a story about a coincidence or about a conversion, then the Energy that introduces them will be performing the will of the Idea, and the Power will proceed from that unity of purpose....the will of the creator becomes a character in the story; just as, theologically, all miracles depend on the assumption that God is a character in history. But even so, it is necessary that God should act in conformity with His own character...God will be chary of indulging in irrelevant miracle, and will only use it when it is an integral part of the story." (82-83)

Finally, a problem with modernity, reductionist science, and bad writing (in general and detective fiction in particular). All of them seek to deal with a discrete problem and try to offer us simple "solution". Unfortunately, the problems are complex and the solutions are somewhere between limited and highly flawed. One sees the same problem in economics, when its practice is reduced to something mathematical and the human person and human institutions are reduced to something mechanical. (As a practitioner of detective fiction, it's noteworthy that Sayers has a problem with the genre along these lines [194-204]: The detective problem is always soluble (the purpose of the work!); often completely soluble; soluble in the same terms in which it is set; and (quite) finite.)

Why does it matter? Sayers calls us to live "artistically"-- defined a certain way. "If we conclude that creative mind is in fact the very grain of the spiritual universe, we cannot arbitrarily stop our investigations with the man who happens to work in stone, or paint, or music, or letters. We shall have to ask ourselves whether the same pattern is not also exhibited in the spiritual structure of every man and woman...It will at once be asked what is meant by asking the common man to deal with life creatively...If he is required to be...stretched in a leisured manner upon a sofa...the average man cannot afford this. Also, he supposes that the artist exercises complete mastery over his material. But the average man does not feel himself to be a complete master of life (which is his material). Far from it. To the average man, life presents itself, not as material malleable to his hand, but as a series of problems of extreme difficulty, which he has to solve with the means at his disposal...Perhaps the first thing that he can learn from the artist is that the only way of 'mastering' one's material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love...The second thing is, that the words 'problem' and 'solution' as commonly used, belong to the analytic approach to phenomena, and not to the creative." (185-186)

Good stuff, as always, from Sayers-- on life, vocation, work, and our place in this beautiful world!



review of Barbara Brown Taylor's "Learning to Walk in the Dark"

Barbara Brown Taylor opens the first chapter of Learning to Walk in the Dark with a reference to Isaiah 45:3's "treasures of darkness" (NASB), fitting since she's trying to mine the concept of darkness-- and our largely negative reactions to it. We often fear darkness-- physically and metaphorically. But how much of that is justified-- biblically and practically? 

In a provocative, practical, easy-to-read book, BBT argues that it's not nearly as justified as we think-- and often causes a lot of damage.  

In her house, growing up, as is common, she was taught to fear the dark: "come in from the dark"; adorn the house with "night lights"; leave a light on in your bedroom when you're sleeping. "The dangerousness of the dark was like the law of gravity. No one could say exactly how it worked, but everyone agreed...The idea that it might be friendly was absurd." (2) As she lay in bed, "all the loose darkness in that room started to collect in the closet and under the bed, pulling itself together with such magnetic malevolence..." (3) How to deal with it? "The only strategy I had ever been taught for dealing with my fear of the dark was to turn on the lights and yell for help." (3) The response was to turn on a light, wanting a "quick fix" to the "problem" (4).

For BBT, darkness is "shorthand for anything that scares" her (4). She'd be tempted to eliminate it if she could. And yet...no monsters attacked her in her room and the metaphorical darkness of life events has not killed her. In fact, "I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life." Her conclusion: "I need darkness as much as a I need light." (5)

Although these themes are presumably universal (or at least common), BBT focuses on Christianity's largely-negative approach to the theme (6, 10). Darkness is "a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness and death" (6). While useful and appropriate at some level, "this language creates all sorts of problems": "It divides every day in two...It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God [only] with the sunny part." (6) It also "offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things." (6) 

BBT refers to a "full solar church": an over-arching emphasis on certainty in matters of faith; prosperity in circumstances; and keeping [young] people out of "places of darkness". Downsides? First, as with its cousin, the "Prosperity Gospel", any significant struggles facilely indicate a lack of faith (7). Second, "their sunny spirituality had not given them many skills for operating in the dark" (7). Third, she was thankful for the strategy's ability to help keep her on the straight and narrow as a child, but it "also saddled me with a kind of darkness disability that would haunt me for years." (42)

BBT asks: "What would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights?" (9) In this, I'm reminded of Lewis' reference to "rats in the cellar"-- that by turning on the lights quickly in our cellars, we often get to see the rats. (If we make a bunch of noise-- warning them-- then they disappear before we can see them...fooling us into thinking they're not really there.) Lewis' point is similar: when you have the opportunity to see darkness in your own heart, don't make excuses and don't flee, but address the darkness that has been (graciously) revealed to you-- and can be dealt with through the blood of Jesus, His cross, and the Spirit.

Instead, BBT argues for a "lunar spirituality" that "waxes and wanes with the season." (8). Her conclusion is that "darkness is not darkness to God; the night is as bright as the day" (16). Perhaps this is part of what Revelation 21-22 implies with "no more night". 

BBT questions the extent to which darkness is bad, but she also provides examples where it is a good. It's apparently far easier to move chickens in the dark (34). And it's important for sleep and our body's health (61). She also attends the Biblical record to note that the metaphor is more complicated than is often sold. The metaphorical uses are nearly unanimous (43-44). But God makes a promise to Abram through the stars (44). God visits Jacob on his way out of town in a famous dream and wrestles with him on his way back home (44-45). Joseph has his dreams too (45). And a biggie: the major events of Exodus: Passover, parting the Red Sea, and the manna are all at night (45). 

Moreover, "darkness"-- biblically/experientially-- is not merely a night-time phenomenon. When God visits Moses at Mt. Sinai, it's daytime, but it's profound darkness in the cloud that veils and represents God's presence (45-48, 57). "It is an entirely unnatural darkness-- both dangerous and divine-- that contains the presence of" God (47). BBT quotes Gregory of Nyssa who observes that Moses' vision began with light, but as his walk with God progressed, he saw God in the darkness (48). Or from Genesis 32, she asks: "Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape?...Someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound." (85)

Early-on, BBT asks if we could "benefit from learning to walk in the dark" (13) and provides potential examples: someone in deep need of faith; someone whose dreams have died (hard); someone who has lost his landmarks and sense of self (14). Life can be tough; God sends rain on the just and the unjust. How are we to get through this life-- faith-fully? 

Here, BBT distinguishes between the "translation" and "transformation" functions of religion (87). The former seeks to turn circumstances from curse to blessing. The best news of this approach is its effort to "redeem" circumstances. The bad news is that it often leads to avoidance or surface "solutions". The latter seeks to transform character-- "not to comfort the self but to dismantle it". In this case, the "redemption" is of our souls-- direct progress in the on-going work of sanctification.
So, "how do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?" (37) This points us to the role of spiritual disciplines-- their strategic approach, their rigors, their value, etc. Much of it is clearly mental a la Romans 12;1-2. As such, BBT outlines a process: "Give up running the show. Next you sign the waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first. Finally, you ask [God] to teach you what you need to know." 

In this, I'm reminded of Daniel 3. Daniel's three friends are being tested by the fires of Nebuchadnezzar. They've decided and declared that they think they'll be saved by God-- but even if not, they're not bowing to the king. They don't so much pray to get out of the trial-- as to go through the trial in a way that honors God. Their first priority is not fear and escape, but obedience and faith. I've often suggested to people that they alter their prayers-- from God changing their circumstances to God keeping them *in* their circumstances, but strengthening them to glorify God in their difficulties. Or as the old prayer goes: "Lord, give me a stronger back not a lighter load."

BBT also other pieces of (childhood) advice in navigating the dark: "Have fun...Be careful...Call on God for help" (38) There are certainly trade-offs, but BBT quotes Brox in asking whether we are "hampered more by brilliance than our ancestors were by the dark." (71)

A few miscellaneous things: 

1.) BBT lays out three "official" levels of darkness/twilight (22-24): "civil" (time for headlights so others can see you); "nautical" (enough stars to navigate; time for your headlights-- for you); and "astronomical" (all stars visible). 

2.) BBT connects the importance of darkness to the value of sleep (69 and ch. 8-- esp. 150-152). Included in this is her spine-tingling experiment to have total darkness in the middle of nowhere (152-163). She endures a scary event, but then provocatively wonders whether it was God or something sinister trying to address her-- noting that she'll (now) never know. For those interested, also check out my review of David Randall's Dreamland, a layperson's guide to sleep research. 

3.) BBT also experiences utter darkness of sight and sound by exploring a cave in chapter 6 (121-122). There are a number of excellent nuggets in this chapter: a.) the need to look back as you go, since "nothing looks the same coming out as it did going in" (126); b.) a reminder a la Chesterton that Jesus was conceived in a cave (womb), born in a cave (where the manger would have been), and was buried and rose from a cave (128); and c.) picking up a stone that glittered with fire while in the cave but looked like gravel outside the cave (130-131), 

4.) Finally, here's more on BBT in Time and a related article in The Atlantic 




Sunday, August 9, 2015

taking DC to Ghana 2015: observations and memories

Introduction/Overview
Kurt and I took a team of six (Sarah Boles, Laura Duke, Chris Goodman, and Paul Sheeran) to Northern Ghana, July 25 – August 4, to do five days of discipleship training with 30+ church leaders. Southeast Christian Church sponsored us. We had planned to go in February, but Ebola delayed us. Looking back, we’re happy that we went in July, since that’s the coolest time of the year for them—with highs in the upper 80s and lows in the lower 70s (cooler than Louisville!). Of course, there’s not much A/C, so it’s still tough sledding, but the sledding is probably easiest then!

After flying from Amsterdam into the capital city of Accra, we avoided a 5-8 hour van ride by taking a 45-minute flight to Tamale (a city of about 300K people; the center of Northern Ghana). We stayed in a village north of Tamale—in the compound run by Bob and Bonnie Parker’s Seed Ministries. From there, each morning, we traveled about 45 minutes north by van to a training center in the town of Savelugu.

We had met Francis Bukachi more than a year earlier through Charlie Vittitow in Missions at Southeast. As Charlie hoped and anticipated, the three of us had an immediate connection. Francis left ministry in Kenya with Life in Abundance (LIA) about eight years ago (with their blessing). Continuing LIA’s focus on empowering people, he has built a team on the ground in Northern Ghana—a ministry called Hope Alive Initiatives (HAI). They have a range of efforts to empower: schools, economic development, medical, dentistry, vision, evangelism and discipleship.

Although we discussed a number of topics with the church leaders, our focus was on making disciple-makers and how to implement DC: Thoroughly Equipped or DC for Students: Getting Equipped. Given HAI’s focus on empowering people—and in particular, empowering people to empower others—DC is a natural fit. (We worked with their subset of English-speaking church leaders. They can take DC directly to their English-speaking members. And the translation efforts of Seed Ministries with “DC for Students”, already well underway, will help with the use of DC in other native languages.)

Our primary goal in DC is to make disciple-makers. (The Great Commission calls us to “make disciples”, but if you read between the lines, a “disciple” is someone who can himself make disciples. See: the “multiplication ministry” of II Timothy 2:2 and Joel 1:3.) In the Church, it’s common to give lip service to the importance of discipleship while treating it lightly—as a church and/or as believers. Churches often provide (exceedingly) modest opportunities to be discipled—typically relying on relatively passive absorption of information (through sermons or lecturing in a “teaching” context), calls to serve within the church, and encouragement to reach out to one’s neighbor.

Of course, all of these are good activities. But they aim at some fruit of being a disciple, rather than addressing the roots of discipleship and why it is often so limited. Beyond robust discipleship, it’s rare to find a church that has a vision and a plan to make disciple-makers who can make other disciple-makers. As such, the usual approaches to “discipleship” are neither all that effective nor consistent with the ministry practices of Jesus.

The Work: Training the Trainers
On Monday, Sarah and Laura opened with “our Identity in Christ”. If you don’t understand your identity, then you’re unlikely to get much of what God has for you. Along those lines, Paul spends the first half of Ephesians on this topic, before the pivot verse of 4:1—to live a life worthy of the calling one has received (in those first three chapters). Again, we often focus on the exciting categories and tangible action steps of Ephesians 4-6, without understanding our identity. Putting it another way, Paul starts with our resources in Christ before moving to our responsibilities in Christ. If we don’t do the same, we will not bear much fruit.

Later on Monday, Kurt segued to Spiritual Warfare—in particular, how Satan attacks our identity in Christ. Kurt continued with the broader topic on Tuesday, before handing off to Paul who went through Neil Anderson’s “Freedom Appointment” booklet. Spiritual warfare is probably less prevalent and is certainly underestimated in the U.S. But it’s much more obvious in less-developed countries, particularly where various forms of pagan religion invite more trouble. We heard a number of cool and chilling stories—and saw a few things—when we were in Ghana.

On Wednesday, we divided into three co-led small groups and did a simulation of the “Managing Conflict” week in DC201. Many of the participants had prepared the material already. So we treated it as both an op to illustrate how DC works and to discuss an important topic. In the afternoon, Kurt and I covered our version of Dann Spader’s “Four Chairs” model (e.g., chair 2 is usually a couch; and the big gaps between the first three chairs) and our first DC training session (on the importance of “shoulder-tapping”, the need to “just say no”, the vitality of continued personal growth, the usefulness of goals, the importance of “shepherding” within all small groups, etc.)

On Thursday, Chris opened with a discussion of principles in hermeneutics. And then I led the full group through a thorough discussion of Genesis 3, covering ways to read and teach the Bible more effectively. In the afternoon, we went back to small groups for another simulation (“Intro to Leadership” in DC202).

On Friday morning, we used material from four weeks of DC201-202 to discuss stewardship and marriage in our small groups. In the afternoon, Kurt and I returned to the topic of making disciple-makers; revisited the topic of unity; and closed with a small group exercise where churches made plans to implement DC in some form (to be encouraged and held accountable by Francis’ team).

The daily schedule was 9:00ish until 3:00—with opening comments and a prayer from Pastor Immanuel (who runs the training center, pastors a nearby church, and is a part of the HAI team); Isaak led worship with three or four songs; we trained for an AM session; had lunch; one worship song to bring us back; trained for an afternoon session; and closed with comments, announcements, and prayer. (As an aside, it's interesting that when the group prayed, it was always out loud. Very cool!) 

After the five days of training with the 30+ church leaders, we had a meeting on Saturday afternoon with the HAI team leaders. We talked further about making disciple-makers and learned about their team’s structure. More important, we heard some of their stories—on life, ministry, and how things had changed with the HAI training. It was great to hear about Samson’s work in developing schools and Mordecai’s broad efforts to help the ministry. Zak’s story about being chased out of Mali by gunfire as a missionary—and the long recovery for him and his family—was compelling and encouraging. And Immanuel’s story of transformation in ministry—from mostly a Sunday-only, “spiritual” approach to something much more holistic, including economic development (for him and his people) was impressive.

On Sunday AM, five of the seven of us (including Francis) preached at local churches. From a human perspective, the assignments were random. I was given Yong—a small, largely-Christian village east of Savelugu. They had a light rain that morning, so their usual “Sunday School” was disrupted. People were slow to gather; we arrived about 15 minutes before the service and only one man was there. He showed me their new church building under construction. It was about six times larger. Given the light attendance, I was wondering why they would want that!

But by the time we started, we had 50 in attendance—moving toward crowded—with 47 men and 3 women. (I was thinking that the men were more spiritual, but was told afterwards that the women were still working in the home! More later on the importance and baggage of cultural influences.) Halfway into the worship music, we were at capacity (and beyond) with about 110 adults. (I learned later that two children’s groups of about 50 kids and four adult leaders were meeting elsewhere.) There was no room in there to do more than sit/stand—no dancing, in particular—so one might wonder how that will impact their practices going forward.

It was really warm in there—even on a relatively cool day. Sweat had beaded up on my arms—even before I started to preach! I had a translator. (It’s a bit disruptive, but I also like that it gives me more time to collect my thoughts.) Before the trip, the Lord had given me the message from Revelation 3:7-13—the “open doors” for the church at Philadelphia. Going into it, I was excited to learn that Yong had the most “open doors” of the five sermon ops—given their two schools, dental clinic, and emerging vison clinic—even though they’re only in a small village. I was able to share the Gospel’s salvation message twice. But the best of the good news was probably the opportunity to encourage the believers there about their “open doors”. This led to the most powerful moment of the morning for me—when I broke down at the amazing thought of God sending me on four airplanes to a remote village to deliver this encouraging message! After 30-40 seconds, the translators led them in a song for a few minutes while I got my act back together.

Key Issues
There were a number of interesting small moments/observations. We had four women in the training, including one who breast-fed often. I was sitting next to her the first time it happened and got a surprising eyeful when I turned to my right. After that, it was funny to see the little girl often trying to pull down her mom’s top! We had to deal with the heat; we had ceiling fans, but without A/C, it got tough at times. During small groups, we had some interference from passing children, wandering goats, and the brays of an occasional donkey. One of the Elisha’s had such a beautiful smile. Thomas was quite a character—and it was fun to see him (and Zak) dance. The handshakes varied widely—from straight up to the fancy stuff I learned from a North African 25 years ago. It was difficult to predict/remember what each person wanted to do! Some of them traveled 3-6 hours to get to Savelugu (and stayed with friends locally). And given the roads, everyone had to travel 10-45 minutes daily. The worship was fun and inspirational. And at the end, we were surprised to get “some shine” from Zak—everybody rubbing his hands together vigorously before shooting one hand off the other, away from their body.

All of those were a smile, but I want to focus on some larger details from the training time. First, to the primary point of our trip/training: to make disciple-makers requires vision, a viable plan, and reasonable execution of the plan. In the U.S., most church leaders will give at least lip service to “discipleship”. But only some have a vision for any sort of robust discipleship—or more to the point, a vision for making disciple-makers and training up competent lay-leaders. Of those with a vision, few have a viable plan. But then the good news: For those with a vision and a plan, execution of the plan presents challenges, but is usually accomplished in some substantive form.

In Ghana, they might be better on the first two steps. (I’m not sure; my sample size is too small to say!) But the last step is more difficult, culturally, for them. “Getting things done” is (far) more American than Ghanaian. Thankfully, HAI focuses on that challenge through various forms of exhortation, encouragement, and accountability/follow-up.

Second, when we arrived, we learned that some of the HAI-trained churches are wrestling with a significant organizational issue which has threatened their unity. It was providential that we were there at this time—and to talk about “managing conflict” during our time together. We saw many reasons for hope—from the general dialogue we had with them to the character and faith of those with whom we worked. We trust that the Lord will continue to work in this matter. And we pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ that they would practice humility, patience, “bearing with one another”, and mutual submission as they work through the details.

Third, the intersection with Islam in Northern Ghana is an important feature of life there. The population is about 80% Muslim (although many of them are “cultural” Muslims). There are small mosques sprinkled every half-mile or so in villages, towns and the city. One of the team leaders is a former Muslim (with some fascinating stories). That said, (most?) everyone seems to get along well. Everybody was at least neutral and generally friendly; kids and especially women often waved at us and started/returned smiles and waves; Muslim children go to Christian schools; and so on. Occasionally, we heard about tension. For example, we were told not to walk as a group to a nearby village, because a group of white people would be assumed to be Christians actively evangelizing. And the Christian leaders are concerned about Boko Haram coming into Ghana.

Fourth, empowerment is a big issue for HAI—not just lip service or run-of-the-mill empowerment, but empowering people to empower others. In their language, they have “training of trainers” (TOT) to that end. In DC language, we want to move beyond making disciples to making disciple-makers. Or in popular language, we want to move beyond giving a man a fish—and even, teaching a man to fish—to teaching him how to teach others to fish. This focus on empowerment extends to all aspects of their ministry, including economic development.

For example, it’s common for Ghanaians outside the city to be productive in the six-month wet season—and to save resources to survive the six-month hot, dry season. They often settle into a cycle: six months of work and six months of sitting under a tree. It’s a challenge to get them to think longer-term—say, to save more than what they need for the six dry months. Ideally, they would try to save and accumulate productive capital—say, a goat or two.

Pastor Yuba has done this, accumulating some goats and a few sheep—and most recently, his first pig (which gave birth recently to eight piglets!). Pastors are prone to want to depend on their congregation for support, but that’s really difficult in a less-developed country. (I don’t think anyone gave even the smallest currency [5 ceti] in the church offering at Yong—what would be less than $1.50 for us.) Instead, HAI encourages the pastors to provide for themselves, avoiding dependency and modeling a better life for their “flock”. (As an aside, it was interesting that one of our review memory verses for our DC simulations happened to be I Thessalonians 4:11-12!)

Fifth, the cultural influences were noteworthy; and some were quite obvious. (I’m sure ours are noteworthy as well, but since we’re immersed in them, can we see them?!) One of the obvious “surface” effects was “tribal markings”—various marks carved into the faces of the people, particularly the men. More important, tribe, culture, and family had an important impact on thoughts about work, marriage and family dynamics, etc. Geographic constraints, legal institutions, and economic (dis)incentives added to the mix. In that context, the church leaders definitely saw the vital need for Christian/biblical discipleship to combat the cultural errors—particularly in marriage and stewardship.

Life for us in Ghana: The Small Things
During the training, our daily routine was a light breakfast at 7, the van ride to the training center, the training from 9-3, the ride back, a debrief and whatever we needed to do to tweak our plans for the next day, an early dinner at 5—and then walk, study, and/or play games (Splendor, Dominion, and Bridge) until bedtime.

We had a number of inside jokes. Paul became “P-Diddy” after wearing his baseball hat sideways. Laura “looked refreshed” once—and then frequently after that. Eric and especially Kurt had trouble at the airport with giving tips to some of the people trying to “help” us at the airport with our luggage. In the trainings, all of us had trouble in avoiding idioms. I don’t know if Kurt struggled more or we just gave him more of a hard time. But I think our favorite was his use of “throwing them a curveball”.

We were well-fed. At Seed Ministries, we ate in a lovely gazebo and the meals were brought on a wagon constructed from a large tray on top of two large bike wheels with two long handles. For breakfast, we had some combination of eggs, oatmeal, bread & jelly, biscuits & gravy, and fruit. They packed us a lunch each day: a delicious egg sandwich on toast one day and a chicken pastry another day. But usually, it was PB or cheese sandwiches. For dinner, we had fruit and/or veggies and a starch, with a main dish of ground nut soup (twice; excellent!), spaghetti, veggie soup, chicken & dumplings, or roast chicken. The little bananas were good. But the mangoes were awesome; I couldn’t get enough. To drink, we had fruit juice, lime-aid, tea and coffee. And always, we had access to bags of water. I think we only had dessert one night, but it was special: pineapple and home-made ice cream served inside the pineapple’s core.

The compound was surprisingly nice—maybe a half-notch below my in-laws’ lake house. It had AC and every two people shared a small but complete bathroom. We took cool showers, but their staff even did our laundry! Kurt had to deal with a roof leak the first night with a heavy rain, but otherwise, it was far nicer than we had expected. (And although very impressive to build such a great facility in that setting, it was relatively inexpensive in terms of money.) The compound was home to many of the birds we saw; it was one place where they were safe. (They’re often hunted for food; no property rights can be exerted! And they’re seen as a nuisance, since they eat the rice heads.) There was a baobab (?) tree with pods that yielded a sweet-tasting substance. The Parker’s ministry is called Seed Ministries and they do many things, the largest of which is equivalent to our “Bible Bowl”, with thousands of kids. They have been implementing “DC for Students” over the past six months, working to translate it into eight different languages.

Given the nice facilities, we slept well. Early AM, our sleep was often disrupted by the Muslim calls to prayer and a few roosters. But usually, we went back to sleep easily enough. I don’t think we experienced jet lag per se. The trip over there jacked up our sleep pretty well. We were four hours “ahead”, but we got tired a few hours after their early sunset (6:30ish)—when it was mid-afternoon back home. Since I’ve gotten home, I’ve been more tired than normal. But our family went to two drive-in movies on Friday night before a Saturday AM DC training session, so maybe that explains my fatigue!

Sunday afternoon, we got to see an Assemblies of God ministry baptize about 25 young adults in the baptistery at Seed Ministries. Very cool! It was interesting to think that many of them were being submerged in water for the first time in their lives!

The Ghanaians were very well and brightly dressed. We only saw a handful of men and women with Western dress and hair—and as a result, they stood out quite a bit.

The animals: tons of goats; some sheep and cows; a handful of donkeys; many chickens and guineas; in some place, many bats but few birds; only a few horses, cats or dogs. Insects? We were worried about mosquitoes, but they weren’t much of a problem (at least vs. all of our defenses and God’s protection!). There were tons of flies. The termite mounds were impressive, but there were only a few wasps. (I don’t remember any bees.)

The roads ranged in quality. We had some rough dirt roads for assorted short drives, including the last mile getting to the compound. We generally had decent paved roads, but there were many and varied vehicles on the road (from bikes, mopeds and motorcycles to buses and trucks) and lots of people and animals on the shoulder. The varying speeds led to Puerto-Rico-like driving conditions—with a number of pulse-enhancing efforts to pass other vehicles. There were also potholes, speed bumps, numerous villages, and checkpoints to slow you down as well. By far, the easiest drive we had was on the new roads toward Yong (another one of their open doors). There was “nothing out that way”. So we were able to get above 60 MPH for the only time on the trip! One last thing: few people bother learning how to drive in Ghana, since few of them will have the opportunity to drive a car anytime soon—aside from the few wealthy people or those who drive professionally (taxis or drivers like ours).

The landscape was similar to rural Alabama, at least in the wet season—lots of rich greens and deep red clays. Along the roads, there were expansive gas stations, lots of fields (many with walls to mark their [largely unimproved] territory), modest fences (but sufficient to keep the goats out). We saw some amazing feats of transport, including four couches and a guy on the back of a motorized cart. Women and girls (and some younger men) often carried impressive loads on their heads. Small children carried smaller children. There were tons of little shops, selling everything from food to water, from doors to bricks, from spare tires to furniture and clothing.

As for travel, Delta had a hilarious safety video. (I watched it twice. Can you imagine it would need to be?!) But we had some trouble getting our boarding passes. There had been a severe weather incident in Amsterdam the day before our arrival that disrupted flights. This prevented us from getting boarding passes without standing in the slowest (four-hour) line in the history of the world! (Fortunately, they brought us food and water while we waited in line!) The airport in Accra was tumultuous, leading to some difficulties with locals “helping” us and wanting “tips”. At the much smaller airport in Tamale, things were much easier. The entertainment options on the planes were many and diverse. Among the 100+ movies available, I watched Argo again and caught “The China Syndrome” (a classic and really good) for the first time.

We visited the market in Tamale on Saturday AM. It was crowded and crazy—the sort of thing you see in the movies. There was food everywhere—from fresh veggies and clothing to sun-dried fish and sides of beef with flies all over. We were advised to wait until we got to the “cultural center” to make our purchases. It was much calmer there with a lot more room to move. We were told that we would get to haggle a lot, but there was a lot less than advertised. Still, the prices were good. So, I bought two backpacks, three shirts, and a duffel bag (all beautiful/colorful), an over-the-shoulder leather satchel for Daniel’s bike-riding, and a popular wooden carving of the Trinity (three interlocked persons in one piece of wood). 

In Accra on Monday, there wasn’t a full-blown market, but lots of street-level vendors in front of established stores. I’d spent most of the money I had allotted and had already bought gifts for everybody, so I was still looking but implicitly driving harder bargains. For $5 each, I picked up a “Jesus Saves” soccer ball with the Ghanaian flag’s colors and a rectangular painting on some sort of vinyl (its reference to fisher-men and its exhortation against “laziness” will remind me of the trip). We also went into a really nice, American-style grocery store and hung out on the beach for a few hours (at a resort in-town where our driver knew the people).

One last thing: when we were there, I was focused on the trip. At one point, I felt bad for not missing Tonia and the boys. To some extent, I knew that I needed to focus on the trip. But the larger issue is that if I indulged many thoughts about home, I would inevitably start thinking about all of the things I would need to do when I got home—and that wouldn’t be helpful to my state of mind there or the nourishment I would receive by fasting from American things while I was there. Once the trip was over and I turned my thoughts toward home, I missed them badly and was so thankful to see them again.


Thanks to Francis for his vision and leadership; it was a pleasure to work with such a wise and humble man. Thanks to his team on the ground in Ghana for their support and their ministry. Thanks to Bob and Bonnie Parker for their hospitality and their ministry in Ghana. Thanks to everyone who provided financial and prayer support. Thanks to Southeast which underwrote a significant part of the trip's expense. Thanks to the Missions Dept at Southeast for their wisdom and support. And thanks to the terrific team of DC'ers we took to Ghana!To God be the glory for this trip. We had a great time and we think we made an impact. But only time will tell—and only God will know the extent. We know that we were faithful to our calling/mission and we have high hopes for disciple-making in Ghana. May they have the vision for disciple-making, may they have a viable plan, and may they persevere in executing it—for the glory of God and the growth of His Kingdom.  

Friday, July 24, 2015

our trip to (Northern) Michigan 2015

We enjoyed our second consecutive Summer trip to Michigan in late June and early July—nine days in total. The sequel (largely to the northern half of Michigan) followed the original trip (to the southern half of Michigan) in 2014—which preceded our Summer family trips to North and SouthCarolina in 2013; South Dakota and eastern Colorado in 2012; New York State in2011; and North Carolina in 2010. Like our earlier Michigan trip, it was not our most impressive trip (see: NY and SD/CO). But per dollar and per hour, it was excellent, since it was relatively easy and inexpensive.

Our target was the northern half of Michigan, but we made stops along the way to get that far north. We started the vacation proper in Mansfield, OH with a visit to the Reformatory. (We had seen the Bible Wax Museum there in 2011 on our way to NY—and we hope to see the Military Museum some other time.) The prison/reformatory is most famous for its use in Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One. But it’s been used in other references to pop culture and is historically significant in terms of its technological advance as the largest free-standing set of steel-cage-structured cells. (I think it was five floors of 120 cells per floor.)

We spent the next day at Cedar Point—our second visit to our favorite amusement park by far. At 20 seconds and a top speed of 120 MPH, the Dragster continues to be the kids’ favorite, but they have a ton of great rides. They have fewer shows than the average park, but the one we saw was the highlight of the entire trip for three of the four boys. “Wheels Extreme” was a combination of people on bikes, roller blades, scooters and skateboards—along with some gymnasts on trampolines. The gymnasts used a long trampoline to do extended routines. The wheels—individually and combined—were also impressive. But we had seen those sorts of thing before. The best part was the gymnasts using two square trampolines between three 12’ tall rectangular staging areas. They would jump off one staging area and return to the same area by walking up the side. They would jump from one staging area to a trampoline and then over the next staging area to the next trampoline. (Try to picture it!) And so on. It was really creative, entertaining, and awe-inspiring.

With Cedar Point behind us, Days 3 and 4 were finally in Michigan, starting with our second visit to Detroit. We stayed in Canton—between sites we wanted to see in Dearborn, Belleville, and Ypsilanti. And we were still close enough to Detroit to enjoy the Big City. In Dearborn, we visited the Automobile Hall of Fame (across the parking lot from “The Henry Ford”; ok, but I can’t recommend it, unless you’re a big fan of cars and haven’t seen some of the better car-oriented museums in Michigan). We briefly revisited “The Henry Ford” (the two full days there were the highlight for Tonia and I on last year’s trip), catching their new “Roadside America” exhibit and seeing the 3-D IMAX film, Secret Ocean. After that, we walked around downtown Detroit and then headed back to Belle Isle State Park (adding a visit to their “Zoo”, Conservatory, and a fun State-fair-like Metal Slide). On the way back, we picked up tons of inexpensive and excellent pastries at Shatila, a local bakery of some renown (h/t: Rachel Loy).

The first part of Day 4 took us to the Yankee Air Museum in Belleville and the Automotive Historical Museum in Ypsilanti. Both were nice stops—modest, but inexpensive and worth the time and money. Then, we hopped in the car and headed to the North Country. Our only stop: the beautiful “Cross inthe Woods” Catholic shrine/church in Indian River—about 30 miles south of Mackinac. It’s the largest crucifix in the world and—in tandem with its natural setting and their stations of the Cross—was a meaningful opportunity for worship.

We stayed in Mackinaw City and headed to Mackinac Island for Day 5. You take a ferry and end up on an island that does not allow driving. We walked a bunch and biked for two hours. It’s pricey—especially to stay there—but it’s a must-see place. It’s good for families, especially if they can bike or be biked. But it—along with much of the trip—would be a terrific place for older couples (sans kids) or as an anniversary celebration for young couples. Mackinac Island had a number of touristy sites. For example, we saw the Butterfly House & Insect World. It was ok, but then it occurred to me that the touristy things are largely there for people who have longer stays on the island and are looking for other things to do. In a word, I would visit the touristy things on a longer stay, but avoid them for a one-day stay.

From there, we headed into the UP (the “Upper Peninsula” of Michigan). Really rural and pretty (or even beautiful if you love trees and remote areas). The mosquitos were heavy (a problem from mid-May through late-July) and you have to be careful about getting food and gas (since there are so few establishments). But it was a really nice part of the trip.

We stayed in Paradise and stumbled onto one of the best restaurants in Michigan—The Fish House—with perhaps the best fish I’ve ever eaten. Then, Day 6 was full, starting with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. We happened to be there for the 20th anniversary—to the day—of the raising of the bell on the Edmund Fitzgerald. (This year is the 40th anniversary of its sinking—the most recent, significant maritime disaster in America. I’d heard Gordon Lightfoot’s song a handful of times and assumed that the event was from the 1870s not the 1970s!)

Then, we stopped at the upper level of Tahquamenon Falls—really nice. From there, we drove east-to-west through Pictured Rocks NationalLakeshore. We stopped at the Log Slide and watched the kids hike an amazing sand dune down to Lake Superior—maybe 150 yards long with a 45 degree slope. Then, we drove to Chapel Creek and hiked 7-8 miles to the lake, seeing Chapel Rock, more dunes, and some of the Pictured Rock lakeshore sights. A good hike and beautiful in places. But this was the first “mistake” in our plans. Looking back, I would have liked more time at PRNL. You could easily spend an entire day there alone; there’s a lot more to do.

That evening, we drove to Petoskey. (Another mistake: with more time, I would done the entire “Tunnel of Trees” scenic drive on the way to Petoskey: Levering Rd, west to Cross Village and then M119 south to Harbor Springs [a really nice town] and then Petoskey. Coming from the north, this would only add 15 miles and 20-25 minutes to your drive.) The next day, we enjoyed the Archangel Grotto (and their Stations of the Cross) at the Marion Center in Joy Valley outside of Petoskey. On the north end of Petoskey, we enjoyed the state park and its beach.

If one wanted to settle into one of the lakeside towns in Western Michigan for a few days (again, the sort of trip we’d recommend for couples moreso than families), we’d pick Petoskey, given its combination of in-town possibilities and its nearby day-trips: a.) Indian River’s crucifix/shrine or the Tunnel of Trees & Harbor Springs—if not done earlier; b.) Charlevoix [15 miles away]—another cute little town which we drove through but comes highly-recommended; and c.) Torch Lake [35 miles away, on the way to Traverse City]—for its beautiful blue water, which we enjoyed.

In Petoskey, we stayed at the Michigan Inn & Lodge. In describing our trips, I don’t remember ever talking about our hotels; they’re usually quite non-descript! But this was an interesting hotel concept—with free, good meals [not just breakfast], huge TV’s in the room, and even free haircuts. I’d definitely recommend them, especially if you’re staying a few days.

From Petoskey, we drove to Traverse City, enjoying the National Cherry Festival. We tried to see Weird Al Yankovic in concert, but they had sold too many tickets and we couldn’t see, so I got us a refund. I had been reluctant to do more dunes (after last year’s Silver Lakes and this year’s UP), but we had some time and decided to visit the famous Sleeping Bear Dunes. It was well worth it—both the scenic drive and the op to climb some serious dunes. (We did not visit Glen Haven/Arbor, but would have done so if we had taken more time.)

The boys joined others in descending an even longer (250-300 yds to Lake Michigan) and steeper (60 degrees?) dune than they had done at Pictured Rocks. Going down was strongly discouraged—the sort of warning you’d expect to see posted when they don’t want to end up bailing out people who have over-committed to a physical feat they cannot accomplish! Then, all of us climbed the official dunes (250 yards with 30-40 degree slope). Not surprisingly, the powers-that-be wisely preferred that people climb first and descend later—than vice versa!

I had hoped to take the family to the (family-friendly) CherryBowl Drive-In Theatre in Honor. But they started really late and I had scheduled a long drive to our hotel in Grand Rapids, so we passed. The next day, we went to see the wild animals Boulder Ridge in Alto (terrific); the Mid-AmericaWindmill Museum in Kendallville, IN (nice and inexpensive, especially with our tour guide!); and the Cord-Duesenberg Auto Museum in Auburn (excellent on cars and the architecture of the building).

A few reflections on the modest “mistakes” I made (what I would have done differently if I had known) and how others might want to do this trip (independent of those mistakes). We took 9 days, but looking back, I wish we had taken 10, needing less time for Traverse City and adding time for PRNL and Glen Arbor/Haven. That said, a good trip to the north half of Michigan could be done in a week; we took four days to get to Mackinac, but that only requires one day.