Sunday, August 26, 2007

Courageous Travel

Well, I am heading on another trip this fall… The Stanley-Erickson’s and I are heading to Peru in mid-October. I am grateful to have friends like Cathy and Jim in my life. They dream things I would never dream of and then bring me along for the ride. Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca (if you don’t know… ancient Incan ruins in the Andes Mountains and the highest fresh water lake in the world).

It was a difficult decision for a number of reasons. The first… I just quit my job so I have all the time in the world and none of the money. When I was a student in my previous life, I never had a budget. Rather, I just tried not to spend any money. Great idea. Bad lifestyle. Not in the area of life choices, but in my attitude. Always acting like I didn’t have any money. Missing opportunities that would never come again. Like this one. This may be our last chance to travel like this together. Cathy and Jim will be adopting a child in the next year. I will be working on a dissertation and then working again. We aren’t spending a lot of money. We used frequent flyer miles. Hostels are about $15 per night (the nicer ones). Most of our souvenirs are in the form of photographs. I am trying to do this student stint a little differently. I don’t want to be unwise, but I also don’t want to be afraid all the time. Afraid that I don’t have the money. Fearful that I won’t complete my assignments. I want to live abundantly. Isn’t there something in the Bible about that? I want to make good, balanced choices. Ones that value my relationships as well as my studies.

Having said that… two days after we booked our tickets, there was a horrendous earthquake off the coast of Peru. Hundreds of people were killed. Cities along the coast were devastated. None of the areas we are visiting were impacted directly. Yet… I am not sure what my hesitation is. I am not concerned about more earthquakes. Of course it is a possibility, but I travel to California to visit families all the time. I suppose it has more to do with the concept of being a tourist. What does it mean to treat someone’s home as an object of entertainment? I am hoping to learn something. I want to expose myself to more of this world. I think I have enough sense to see the people of the country as fellow human beings created in the image of God rather than objects to study and observe. Yet, still…

Is leisure travel giving glory to God? Does it depend on how you travel? Your attitude? Does it depend on what companies you work with? We work with local business people. We take pictures and not pieces of ancient ruins. We look into eco-friendly hostels and those that support charitable causes. Is that enough? We are not traveling to serve anybody. We are not on a mission trip or a service project. Is that all right?

I am still going. But I wonder. I think expanding my understanding of the world expands my understanding of who God is. I see beauty in unexpected places and know they reflect the image of God. I see the grandeur of people of various faiths and, while remaining committed to the centrality of Christ, I must approach these people with respect. I must admit that I see something of Christ in them. And if I am willing to look, I see the struggles of the people. I hear the complaints about the global economy. I am forced to ask questions about the inequality of resources in the world. And my heart grows in seeking the kingdom of God for all people, not just those in my own family or my own country.

It is a choice, though to see those things. The book, Divided by Faith, is a great study of how the white church in the United States somehow remains blind about racism despite overwhelming evidence. In my own life, as I learn more about the world, in particular other people’s experiences, I am amazed by how blind I have been and how much I don’t want to know. So, if this trip is in any way to glorify God, I must be willing to go into it with open eyes. I must be willing to allow God to reveal more to me of who God is and who the world is. And my place in this world. I must allow my heart to expand… to fill more with love for other and to make space for more sorrow. For to see with the eyes of God is to allow your heart to be filled with both.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Generous About Worship

Yesterday morning I went to church with my brother and his family. It is a large church north of San Diego. Contemporary worship. Multicultural. Young and casual. Centered on preaching. It is just the type of church I would probably have been very comfortable with fifteen or twenty years ago. A basic bible message. An altar call. A series on Revelations. I found, though, that I was critical from the moment I walked in to the room. This is not a bad thing. Theological education trains you to look at the world with a critical eye, to ask questions, to discern meanings and implications of church and worship.

As I sat in worship, I prayed for a generous spirit. It helped a little. My brother struggles to believe in God and I am grateful he goes to church with his family at all. I don't want to discourage that. I thought of Paul's words regarding those who were preaching the gospel with impure motives. Paul believed that it was better for the word to be preached whatever the motives. God's word would be efficacious regardless of who delivered the message. The moment I thought those words I realized how arrogant they would have sounded. I cannot judge this pastor's heart. I cannot judge his motives.

I tried to look for the positives. I found several. While they emphasize saving souls and the end times, they also talked about going to Uganda for a service project. The pastor emphasized the need to meet physical needs so that people might be able to hear the message of the gospel. The pastor also talked a lot about suffering and while there was a tinge of health and wealth in the message, mostly he emphasized that suffering happens in this world. He did not blame the victims. He did not say that those who suffer are evil or sinful. He was miraculously healed from cancer, yet he did not assume that all faithful prayer heals. Others in his family died from the same cancer. He recognizes that suffering is present in all our lives.

Yet there were some things about the message that bothered me. The emphasis was on a pre-millenial view of eschatology. The pastor believed that all Christians would be raptured before the end times. So, he preached the horror and devestation of the end days and then repeatedly stated how grateful he was that he wouldn't be here when all that suffering occurred. His gospel message, at least for this weak, was accept Christ to escape the violence of the end times. Something seems twisted about that reasoning for two reasons.

First, it seems that if we believe the world will be going through incredible suffering, shouldn't we want to be present to minister to the people during those awful days? Can we abandon the earth when it needs us the most? Some would argue that it will be too late, that they had their chance. I disagree. Perhaps I love this world too much. I do think that is possible. There are times that I would rather be here than in heaven. I don't want the end of days to come. I want to see my nieces grow up. I want to fall in love and have a family. I want to grow old. I want more time for all of us to live and love and learn. But perhaps, if this love for the world is born out of less selfish motives, out of a concern for people, out of a desire to end suffering, it is a good thing. And it should not wait until the end of days.

Second, I don't think the desire to escape the destruction of the end times is exactly the right reason to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Back to my generous spirit for a moment... I was only at this church for a week and realize that this is not the whole gospel message as presented by the pastor. I only saw a small slice. Also, I must admit that very few of us come to faith for the right reasons. I wanted love. I'll admit it. I wasn't seeking forgiveness. I didn't know much about lordship. I wanted unconditional love from God. Yet, how does that initial decision shape our faith for the rest of our lives? Does it lay a foundation that determines what type of building our faith will become? It seems that those initial ideas about Christ can provide areas of strenght and weakness in our faith, areas where we understand the truth and areas of blindness.

In this case, in the classic liberal critique, salvation becomes simply fire insurance. The reason that is unappealing to me has more to do with the lack of understanding of who Christ is and the purpose of Christ's death and resurrection. There is so little about grace, truth, love, sin... As I write, I wonder how much my own decision was shaped by those ideas. Mine was just as selfish a decision. It was only later that I could understand more clearly who was loving me and what that might require of me in this world.

Perhaps it doesn't matter as much where our faith begins. Perhaps what matters most is where our faith develops after that... if it develops at all. If we view conversion as a decision, it is over and done with. If we view our decision as entering a relationship, then there is the opportunity for growth and change as we learn more and more about this Jesus we have come to believe in. Yet we must have discipline and courage in order for this growth and change to occur. We must allow God to be God, not exactly who we thought God would be when we began the relationship. We must not fear the parts of God we don't understand. We must not avoid the parts of God we don't like. But we must grow in this relationship. We must allow ourselves to be changed. And pastors and lay leaders in the church must model this to the congregations.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Reflections on a Mammogram

Turning 40… it brings all sorts of new experiences. Not the least of which was my first mammogram. All I have to say is clearly men invented this device and if you want proof that there is not sufficient funding going towards women’s health issues, consider the process of getting a mammogram. Your breast is treated like an object… okay, that may not be new for women in our society… perhaps the difference is that suddenly your breast has no sexual or social implications whatsoever. The doctor pokes and prods it. The nurse lifts it up and pushes it this way and that. Then this contraption squeezes it harder than you ever imagined was possible. And they take a picture. As one who has never really had anyone poking or prodding my breasts, it was a bit of an uncomfortable experience. I imagine that pregnant women go through similar experiences with various parts of their bodies suddenly assuming different roles and/or significance in the world. I knew that our bodies were culturally as well as physically constructed, but this brought that understanding to a whole new level. It is amazing how our culture has shaped the significance of various body parts. How that construction is related to issues of power, race, and gender. How a body part can have a different meaning in a variety of contexts. As someone interested in art and photography, how can you tell the difference between art and pornography? Who gets to draw that line? Is it the person begin filmed, painted, or photographed? Is it the “artist”? The government and its laws and legislations? Our various cultures? The cultural construction of the body is significant theological discussion in feminist and womanist circles as well as among black theologians and others who reflect on issues of slavery and abuse. We tend to devalue the bodies that we want to use for our own benefit or pleasure. Perhaps we do the same to individual parts of our bodies. Perhaps we do it to ourselves as well as others. It seems clear that God values us as material beings, created with bodies that are to reflect the image of God. It seems clear that we are to treat others, and their bodies, as if they are bearers of God’s image. It seems clear, too, that I must be concerned about how we have constructed our world in such a way that others bodies don’t seem as valuable as mine. When traveling outside of the United States, I am constantly aware of the fact that my body is often more protected than the bodies of people from other countries who don’t have the power and influence to demand that their bodies be treated with respect. I am also aware that my body can become symbolic… one United States Citizen… or one Iraqi… or one Mexican… treated in such a way as to communicate something to the whole… in such a way that the individual body, the individual person disappears… All that from a simple mammogram.