Blog Posts

Across the Great Chasm

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine
linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man
named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what
fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The
rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he
looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on
me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue;
for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that
during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner
evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all
this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might
want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to
us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I
have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into
this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets;
they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes
to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not
listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if
someone rises from the dead.’” -Luke 16:19-31 
See the source image
Greta Thunberg, 16 year-old Climate Activist

If you watched the news this past week, you probably saw enough to be discouraged about the state of things. Greta Thunberg gave an impassioned speech at the UN about climate change and the impact on, particularly the younger generation. Many of us are in awe of her bold powerful speech but a slew of climate-denying pundits, questioned her grasp of the situation—”she is only a child,” “she is on the spectrum,” and “she is being used by the left to hoist their environmentalist agenda on the rest of us.”

Also this week, the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, announced the beginning of an impeachment inquiry in relation to a phone conversation between President Trump, and Ukraine President, Volodymyr Zelensky. As more information about this conversation has come to light, including a transcript of their conversation, and the whistleblower’s complaint, it has been interesting watching the various responses. Those on the political Left see clear evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. Those on the Right may allow that the conversation wasn’t Trump’s finest moment, but there is no “quid-pro-quo” and ‘nothing approaching something criminal.’

Call me, maybe.

I mention these examples from the news, not because I am trying to make a partisan, political statement which you may or may not agree with, but to point out the obvious. People with the same access to information, observing the same event can come away with radically different interpretations.  There is lots of reasons for this.  We each carrying our own set of assumptions based on experience, socioeconomic status, education, and personal beliefs.  We each have our own starting point and our own vantage point on events.

When we turn to the parable of the Lazarus and the Rich Man, we have an example of two men with very different starting points, and as it happens, two very different end points.  A rich man and a poor man die. The rich man finds himself in the place of the dead, suffering in the flames, the poor man at the side of Abraham. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus, the poor man to him, to give him some relief.” But he is rebuffed, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good thinv gs, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

That the rich man finds himself brought down and a poor beggar is lifted up, may be a reversal of each’s expectations but this is very much in keeping with the message of Luke’s Gospel, where Mary sings, “the hungry are filled with good things and the rich go away empty” (Luke 1:53), Jesus announces that he comes to proclaim “good news to the poor” (Luke 4: 17:21) and pronounces judgment  on the rich  and comfortable because they have already received their consolation (Luke 6:24-26).

If the experience of the rich man and Lazarus is radically different in the next life, one thing remains consistent. a great chasm has been fixed between them.

Jacop Bassano – Lazarus and the Rich Man, circa 1550

“The Great Chasm”

The entire parable contrasts the rich man and Lazarus. We are told at the beginning of the parable that the rich man dressed in purple and fine linen and that he feasted sumptuously everyday (v19).  Purple was an expensive dye in the ancient world, reserved for wealthy elites. As was fine linen. This was their equivalent to red-carpet designer fashions. He feasted on delicacies every day in his father’s house with his five brothers. This was a wealthy, decadent family, no doubt famous and celebrated for being wealthy. Perhaps they were the ancient world’s equivalent to the Kardashians. When the rich man dies, he is buried. There was likely an elaborate funeral procession with all the important people attending.

At his gate sat a beggar named Lazarus. Lazarus longed to be fed by trickle down economics—the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead he is left out by the gate. Dogs would come and lick his open sores. These weren’t well coifed Bishon Frises and Labradoodles but unclean scavengers, who came and licked his open wounds, making him ritually and perpetually unclean, marked off from his community. He had no family of his own to look after him and when he dies there is no mention of a burial. But he is whisked away by angels to Abraham’s side.  

Lazarus was the poor man who discovered his place in the kingdom of heaven, but the rich man, already had his consolation.

When the rich man calls out to Abraham from the flames, it is remarkable that he knows Lazarus’s name. There is no evidence in the parable that he ever spoke to him and even now, he only addresses Abraham. “Father Abraham, show mercy and send Lazarus to me to cool my tongue for I am in agony.” He is still operating from a place of privilege and entitlement, expecting to command the poor and vulnerable to do his biding.

But the rich man is told he had a lifetime of good things while Lazarus had none, but now Lazarus is comforted.

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Now this is a parable and I am not sure it is intended as an accurate depiction of the afterlife but if we contrast the two men we hear of a decadent rich man who lived a life of self-centered entitlement and a poor beggar who is ultimately blessed by God. The name Lazarus comes the Hebrew name Eleazar meaning the one who is helped by God. One man had the resources to help the other but left him out by the gate. The other man died alone and homeless and vulnerable and welcomed into the kingdom of God.

I wonder if the rich man’s afterlife would be different if he braved the great chasm in life and used his dishonest money and resources to make friends with Lazarus the beggar.

What about us? Who are the folks across the great chasm from us? Maybe, like in the parable, you are on one side of the have or have nots divide. Maybe it is political. Like the examples I mentioned above, about some conservative and liberal responses Greta Thunberg or the president’s phone call you would think that the left and the Right have nothing in common with one another.

There is some research to back that up. Conservatives and Liberals seem to have different brains.  There are various studies that show liberals tend to have more brain activity in the left anterior insula, the section of the brain that regulates emotion and is associated with compassion and empathy while conservatives have more activity in the right amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for regulating our fear response.[1] So when you hear your ultra-liberal friends talk about the need to be compassionate to those asylum seekers on our southern border and your ultra conservative friends are talking about how we need to have strong border security to keep our country safe from terrorists, drug dealers and some very bad people, there very brains tell them to think the way they do about the world around them. It is as though a great chasm has been fixed between the two.

Or has it?

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When the rich man knows Lazarus won’t come to his aid, he asks instead for Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his 5 brothers of coming judgment. And Abraham answers, if they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Beyond the reference to Jesus’ own death and resurrection, Abraham’s word to the rich man is that his brothers already have everything they need to know that they are danger of God’s judgment. With a lifestyle of feasting and finery they left a poor beggar at their gate to have his sores licked by dogs.  In the Torah, Israel was repeatedly urged to care for the poor, the widowed, the alien and the orphan (cf Deut 14:28-29; 24:17; Exodus 22:22) When Israel harvested their land, they were to leave some of the fruits of harvest in the field so that the poor could come and glean and no one in the land would go hungry.(Leviticus 19:10-11) When we turn to the Hebrew prophets, we hear page after page warning Israel that their failure to care for the vulnerable, would result in exile and judgment.

6 brothers partied in their house while a poor beggar sat at their gate, hungry, destitute, dogs licking his sores. But if the dead beggar came back, wouldn’t the other 5 brothers listen to him?

Abraham says no. And he is right.

Resurrection and Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a thing. We tend to give weight to the evidence which reinforces our view of the world and produce explanations which cover the counterevidence. So, when we read the gospels it is interesting to see how people respond to Jesus’s miracles. He heals on the Sabbath, and some are impressed by his compassion and authority, and they praise God while others point at how by breaking the Sabbath, he is leading the Jewish people away from Torah. They see the same event. Two radically different interpretations consistent with their own worldview. Or consider miracles in general. John’s gospel calls miracles “signs” because they give us a demonstration that Jesus is truly the Word made flesh. But at times these miracles become a spectacle which distract from the message of Jesus. John Tucker observes, “[Jesus] says that some people cannot see the truth because they are hung up on the miracle.”[2]

Had Lazarus the dead beggar came back to warn the brothers. I don’t think they would have changed anything. They would have called the exorcist to drive him away. They didn’t let that man inside the gate when he was alive, there would be no way, they’d let him in now that he was one of the walking dead. They might be momentarily arrested at the sight of him, but then one of them would open a fresh bottle of wine, and they’d turn the music up until the voice of the crying beggar was drowned out, as much as it ever was.

When I read this parable, the message I come away with is this: cross the great chasm. Include the person who is easiest for us to exclude.  Become the type of person that will include those who view the world differently. Don’t assume your view of the world is the most right, become open to challenges. Become a person who listens. Listen to scripture as it challenges us to not just live for our own enjoyment and comfort, but to expand our care for the vulnerable and to live for God. And if some one rises from the dead and you find him standing at your door, knocking, you may want to listen to what he has to say.

William Holman Hunt – “The Light of the World”- Manchester Version, Painted between 1851-1856


[1]

See Hilary Bruek, “These key psychological difference can determine whether you’re liberal or conservative” Business Insider, April 19, 2018. // www.businessinsider.com/psychological-differences-between-conservatives-and-liberals-2018-2; Ryota Kanai, Current Biology. “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, April 07,2011 // www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(11)00289-2#%20; Darren Schreiber, “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans,” February 13, 2013 // https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0052970.

[2] John Tucker, Zero Theology: Escaping Belief through Catch-22s, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2019), 30. Tucker is commenting on Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000, and the fact that the multitudes follow him only because they ate the bread and were filled (30).

Get Ready to Cheer for the Bad Guy

 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:1-13

Watch tv, go see a movie, read a book and you will discover the characters we are drawn to are often those that are less than perfect. They are antiheros who are deeply flawed. Often the characters acting in their own self-interest are those who save the day for everyone else: Gunfighters, crooked cops, mobsters, or a conman with a heart of gold. We love stories where a character with feet of clay do something good.

There is an old Mel Gibson movie, which I don’t think I ever saw, and if I did, I forgot everything about it except the preview. The movie was called Payback and preview began with a voiceover, “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

Payback (1999)

When we turn to the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) it is as though Jesus does the same voice over: “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

This was a servant in charge of a master’s estate. He is was charged by someone with being wasteful and squandering his boss’s riches. Evidently the charges were serious enough or easy enough to establish that his master fires him without investigation. But they weren’t so serious that he had security accompany him to immediately clear out his desk and escort him from the building. He is given time to put a report in order.

The manager knows that he doesn’t have the strength to dig ditches, back breaking labor usually reserved for foreign slaves captured in war (the way America used to use slaves for such work, and now use prison work crews). He is too proud to sit by the side of the highway with a carboard sign which reads:

MIDDLE MANAGER OUT OF WORK.

ANYTHING HELPS

So, he devises a plan. He calls in all the people he knows who are in debt to his master. One man owes 100 jugs of olive oil to him, likely about 850 gallons of olive oil. No small sum. “Quick take your bill and make it 50.” Another debtor owed his master 100 containers of wheat. This was the amount yield you would get from 100 acres. “Take your bill and make it 80. The percentages that the manager reduced their bills, 50% and 20% were different, but in both cases, it came to about 500 denarii, roughly about 2 years’ pay for a day laborer.

When the master gets word about what his wasteful manager did, you would think he would be upset. The manager was aleady in trouble for squandering the master’s estate and  here he just cut him out of an additional 1000 denarii. But we are told the master praises “the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. “

If this strikes us a strange reaction from the master, Jesus seems to add his own condemnation, “for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

See the source image

This is called the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. While some critical Bible scholars argue about which of Jesus’ words in the gospel he really said, almost no one can imagine anyone else saying this. No moralizing bishop from the second century would praise such an unsavory character.

As I have studied the parable. I have discovered there is wide disagreement  from one commentator to the next on how we should interpret it. There are no fewer than 16 different interpretations of the parable.[1] Some scholars absolve the shrewd manager of any wrongdoing. They say, the master of the house was the one who was in the wrong and the debts that the manager forgave were really the interest rates that Deuteronomy 23:20 stated shouldn’t be charged a fellow Israelite. Others argue that the manager forgave the portion of the debt that was his own share. There is a paucity of details in Jesus’ parable and there is no internal evidence that the master was bad. The manager on the other hand is described first as wasteful, and then as dishonest.

One creative take, is that the shrewd manager is really Jesus, accused of being wasteful by the religious elites, he then acts to forgive our debt to the Master. I don’t think so, Tim. There is too much moral ambiguity about the manager’s actions for me to think that this is a really Christological parable. Though the forgiving of debts does connect to the larger theme of Jubilee in Luke’s gospel.[2]

Most of this wrangling is unnecessary. In the passage Jesus never praises the manager for his alleged wastefulness or his dishonesty. He praises him for being shrewd.  And in verses 10-13 he praises faithfulness over dishonesty:

If you are faithful in little, you will be faithful with much, and if you are dishonest with little you will be dishonest with much,”

and commends faithfulness with ‘dishonest wealth’ as requisite for being entrusted true riches:

If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?” And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own.”

And then Jesus says that you can’t serve both God and mammon (vs 13). None of this seems like a glowing endorsement of the manager’s wastefulness and dishonest dealings[3] The manager was a bad guy. Nevertheless, Jesus cheers on the bad guy, because this bad guy was so shrewd.

See the source image

Christine Pohl says:

Jesus does not commend the manager’s practices, but rather his insight into the connection between resources and relationships. When we consider our wealth and economic practices—even the means we employ to accomplish good ends—as peripheral to the kingdom, we are ignoring Jesus’ warning that it is impossible to serve God and mammon.[4]

So, the question for us is this: Each of us has money and resources at our disposal, how can we use the things we have to serve God? In what ways can we, like the shrewd manager, make friends who will care for us long after our money is gone? How can we use our resources to build relationships?

And if we are bold enough to ask: Are there ways I serve wealth more than God?

See the source image

I am not a big fan of giving to charities, unless I know something about their work. We know we ought to be generous and we give to issues we think matter. But sometimes, giving to charity is an inoculation against really caring for people. It is easy to be kind to those we don’t know a lot harder to be a friend to someone who is struggling.

I came across a quote this week from the Peruvian, Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, ““You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?”[5]

The lesson Jesus gleans from the shrewd manager is “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”

What of instead of giving money to a homeless mission we befriended that homeless person in our neighborhood? Instead of serving a meal at a shelter to someone we’ve never met, we bought dinner for the person with the cardboard sign and we sat down and ate with them and listened to their story? What if we stop using our money to keep those people away but instead used our money and resources to care for them in tangible ways? And yes, we should direct some of our resources to organizations doing good work in the world, but our giving should never be an inoculation for caring for the poor, the widowed and the vulnerable that God places in our midst.

Jesus teaches us that what we do with the money and resources we are entrusted with today, is related to our experience of the riches God has in store for us. Therefore, use money to make friends!   The one who is faithful with little will be faithful with much. We can’t serve both God and mammon.

We live in a consumer culture and everything tells us to invest in our own enjoyment and security. Drive a nice car, have a comfortable home, buy more toys, have a nice nest egg for your future. And to some extent, we buy in.  But when even a bad guy uses his resources for the good of others and to make friends, we cheer him on. We cheer for the bad guy. Sometimes the bad guy who does good, is us.


See the source image



[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 406-409.

[2] See Luke 4:16-22.

[3] I am aware that many scholars see verse 10-13 as only tangentially related to the parable (i.e. Jesus sayings that were placed by Luke here, but not necessarily commenting on the story).

[4] Christine Pohl, “Profit and Loss,” Christian Century, August 29–September 5, 2001, 13.[4]

[5] Cagle, Ryan. Twitter Post. Sept 19, 10:18 PM. https://twitter.com/_ryancagle/status/1174915706527174657

see also Greenfield , Craig, “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” CraigGreenfield.com, January 8, 2016, www.craiggreenfield.com/blog/2016/philanthropy

44.

It’s my birthday, so in keeping with tradition, here is another self-absorbed post about my life. I’m older, but wiser? Rounder? Balder?  One step closer to glory? Another step past my prime? Maybe all the above?

I have a friend from grad school, who every New Years’ Day wishes all her friends an emotionally honest New Years, because not everything in life is happy and it makes sense to honor where we really are at. I feel this same way about birthdays. There is joy in getting older as I reflect with gratitude on my past year. But not everything is rosy, and birthdays have a way of bringing things up as you reflect on where you wish your life was or where you want to be. The good and the difficult flow mingled down.  

I recently reignited my running routine (trying to be less round) and my weekday runs take me past a house that has a sign in their yard that reads:

Vaquero Tom Hobbs

No Tengo Rancho

This translates as “Cowboy Tom Hobbs- I don’t have a ranch.”

The sign makes me smile. I think to myself, “isn’t a cowboy without a ranch, just a boy?” I think of Tom Hobbs is the Jeffrey Lebowski of Vaqueros. He is just there abiding for all us sinners. I don’t know this man and never spoke to him. Maybe he bet the ranch. Maybe he just likes a nice vinaigrette on his salad. I have no idea.

But No Tengo Rancho encapsulates how feel sometimes. Like I failed at my potential and I don’t quite live up to who I saw I am. If I made a sign for myself, it could read:

Pastor James Matichuk

I have no congregation.

I could put that in my front yard for everyone to read. People could run by and laugh.

 A few years ago, I pastored a church briefly and ending there was hard. Some people in ministry pick up the pieces of their life after hard endings and move easily on to the next thing. I try not to judge those people. They didn’t choose to be sociopaths.  But for me I was too wounded to be much good for a while. I had at least a good year where I felt like I was a halfling, too hurt to do too much. I’ve been doing a day job I’m not made for. No Tengo Rancho.

But despite how I feel, my reality has more hopeful. The past couple of years I’ve been preaching fairly regularly and it’s been healing. I feel ready to re-engage my sense of call. I have now taken a regular preaching gig which starts this July. I’ll be preaching 3-4 times a month, helping a local United Methodist pastor who oversees three congregations, filling the pulpit in two of the churches on the weeks he can’t be there. So, I am a pastor without a congregation, but I will have responsibility to two.  

No Tengo Rancho

I call myself a writer sometimes. Mostly that has meant book reviews and I read more than the average bear, but I’ve really struggled to write this year. It is not as though I haven’t been creative. I’ve taken up oil painting in earnest and have had opportunity to play music, but writing has been hard. Including book reviews which I kind of have a knack for. A friend asked me to submit a review of a book of his to a popular magazine and I felt paralyzed to do it. And I couldn’t write. Afraid of rejection? You bet.  But I’ve also struggled with my regular blog posts, theological musings, reviews and such. I have ideas but  I have struggled to produce.

Author James Matichuk,

I have no book.

There is no book on the horizon, though maybe someday. About a month ago I started an almost daily practice of posting a short poem to Facebook and Twitter. This is a small manageable exercise designed to get me writing again. No Tengo Rancho. I have no book but I can write.

Another challenge this year, that I didn’t foresee was my 4-year-old son was diagnosed with Autism.  At 3½ he had a developmental regression and my loquacious toddler became my speech delayed preschooler, who doesn’t know boundaries and can’t communicate what he wants. We’ve been trying to get him the therapies and support he needs for this stage, but it has been a hard adjustment and just when I thought I knew how to dad, this kid has me relearning everything.

 I’ve got this ranch, but I am still learning the lay of the land.

This kid brings me so much joy. I can’t carry on a conversation with him (he babbles now, having a hard time saying actual words), but he smiles and laughs and is exuberant. If I am not too tired from lack of sleep (he sometimes keeps us up all night), he makes me happy.

While adjusting to what it means to parent a special needs child, I have learned the importance of making sure I am taking care of myself (the other reason to go running). Last night he was up wreaking havoc since 2:45AM (he’s still getting into everything while I write this). My wife and I are dog tired, but because I’m trying to do activities which replenish me (e.g. running, playing music, painting), I have more wherewithal to deal with it today. Self-care is important.

My life is more joy that hardship. I have four amazing kids, a wife I love, I live in a city surrounded by mountains with trails full of trees and wildflowers. The sun shines most days. I have a garden I haven’t killed yet. And I am eager to see what God will do in the days ahead. So, wish me an emotionally honest birthday, but for me it is also a happy one.

Hey Church, Can We Talk? a book review

Despite the fact that we live in an age where we are technologically tethered, many of us feel disconnected. Collectively, we have lost the requisite skill to carry on a conversation, particularly with people who are different than us. Online, we mute the voices that challenge us. Offline we flock with birds of a feather. We are a fragmented people,simultaneously more connected than previous ages, and yet typified by a profound sense of alienation.

C. Christopher Smith is at the forefront of helping the church recover the art of conversation. He is a part of Englewood Christian Church, in the Englewood neighborhood of Indianapolis, which has hosted weekly congregational conversations for over 2 decades. Smith also has enriched conversation in the wider Church around the themes of community, reading and the common good. He is the author of Slow Church (with John Pattison), Reading for the Common Good,and as the editor of the Englewood Review of Books—a print and online journal that reviews books which they flag as valuable for the people of God. His newest book, How the Body of Christ Talks, is designed as a practical guide to help the church recover the art of conversation.

In chapter 1, Smith begins by laying out ‘the theological roots for conversation,’ (e.g. the mutual indwelling of the Trinity, a culture of reciprocity, the Christian practice of hospitality and the biblical vision of unity in diversity, the church’s role in incarnating Christ, and need for intentionality). These ‘big ideas’ cast a vision for a Christian dialogue and conversation.

In part 1, Smith gets practical, describing how churches can delve into the practice of conversation. In chapter 2, he desribes the dynamics of conversation (e.g. the size of the group, the degree of homogeneity, and the virtues and challenges of formal and informal conversations). In Chapter 3, Smith discusses what topics we should talk about as we convene a conversation. He suggests that when churches start practicing conversation, they don’t start with ‘abstract matters or highly charged topics,’ even if these are things that are worthwhile to discuss down the road. Instead Smith suggests that one possible starting point for conversation ‘might need to be about why we should talk together, thus creating a space for listening carefully to those who are hesitant, confused, resistant to the idea of conversation.’ In Chapter 4, Smith turns to the healing potential of conversation and reviews three models for structuring the conversation (Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Cafe).

In part 2, Smith discusses the ‘spirituality of conversation’ highlighting practices which will nurture our conversations. Chapter 5 explores conversation as ‘a prayerful way of being’ and describes how the prayer practices of corporate prayer, silence, listening prayer, binding, praying without ceasing and expectancy prepare us to be able to engage well with one another. Chapter 6 explores how we can abide with others through the messiness of life. Chapter 7 invites us to prepare our whole selves for conversation (hearts, minds, body).

Part 3 describes ways we can sustain the conversation, mindful of our church’s mission and identity (chapter 8), how to stay engaged and engage well through conflicts and disagreements (chapter 9), and how to emesh ourselves in the dance of community (chapter 10). A conclusion invites the church to bear witness through conversation and communion in the midst of our fragmented age.

Throughout the book, Smith weaves together stories of his church and other churches who are practicing conversation. Granview Calvary Baptist in Vancouver is highlighted as a church that engaged this conversation around LGBTQIA community with some members affirming and others taking the traditional stance (and their denomination’s stance). While the differences between ‘the sides’ remained important, through their conversation they were able to make a statement on human sexuality which both sides could affirm. Other churches and intentional communities share their wisdom in setting ground rules and framing conversation (these are included in an appendix).

One of the things I really appreciate about Smith’s work, is how he weaves together thoughtfulness and practicality. We are at a culture moment where we are ideologically and politically divided. Smith describes the nature of conversation and gives good suggestions for pursuing an ecclesially rooted conversation which will enrich both our churches and our wider communities. This book will be fruitful for churches and intentional communities as they seek to listen and speak well together.

Notice of material consent: I reviewed this book with an electronic advanced review copy provided by Net Galley. The book is good and I am also procuring my own physical copy.

What’s in the Board Books (and Coloring Books too)? a kids’ books review

Once upon a time (circa 1989), Phil Vischer with his Big Idea entertainment created the epic Christian kid’s show VeggieTales. It became wildly popular in the next decade. But after declaring bankruptcy in 2003, VeggieTales has fallen out Vischer’s creative control, now owned by DreamWorks (still employing Vischer as a writer and voice actor on a contractual basis). So well there have still been great Veggie Tales programs since Visher (that my kids love), there has also has been utterly inane versions of the original show, such as Netflix,”VeggieTales in the City.”

In 2008, Vischer returned with a new show and network, Jelly Telly and “Buck Denver Asks, What’s in the Bible?” The show is sort of a variety puppet show that explores the books of the Bible. It is thoughtful Christian children’s entertainment—packed with lots of Bible Quiz factoids, good humor, and interesting characters. Recently JellyTelly press (a new imprint of Faith Words) launched a book series based on the show.

Children’s author Hannah C. Hall and illustrators Greg Hardin (another BigIdea alum) and Kenny Yamada, have produced several new board books based on the characters “Clive & Ian” from What’s in the Bible?  These include:

 

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These 4 books are perfect for a Toddler or Preschooler (and my special needs 4-year-old). One of the things I really appreciate about them, is that these books focus on the specialness of God’s creation, that he created such a wonderful world, and that he created us. I am suspicious of kids books that are moralistic, but this just talks about the goodness of God and his creation. These board books don’t really get farther into the Bible story than Creation, but they do illustrate it’s meaning well for young minds.

In addition to the board books, there are a couple of other new JellyTelly Press titles, like these Buck Denver’s Bible Coloring Books

Buck Denver's Bible Coloring Book New Testament Stories
Buck Denver's Bible Coloring Book Old Testament Stories

The coloring books depict scenes from the Bible, and occasionally characters from the What’s in the Bible TV show. This is a good resource to have on hand for days when you have your kids with you in the worship service Sunday morning or on rainy days. Fun stuff for the Christian kid. And not too preachy. These are great resources to have on hand.

Thank you Hachette Press and Faith Words for the opportunity to review these products. (These books are available from the publisher (see links above), from Amazon, or wherever fine Christian books are sold.

The End is Near: a book review

revelationJohn of Patmos’s Revelation is esoteric and strange. It has inspired hope and dread, beautiful art and Christian kitsch, good poetry and bad fiction. Michael Straus, a retired lawyer with a graduate degree from Cambridge in Ancient Greek, has produced a new ‘literary’ translation of Revelation. Beyond the woodenly literal translations of  most New Testament translation (e.g. NRSV, ESV, NASB), Straus weaves together Handel’s Messiah, with English, Spanish (Spanglish?), French, Italian and Greek words and phrases. The effect is that certain words and phrases catch readers familiar with Revelation off guard and allow for a fresh hearing. Also, the global intercultural aspect of revelation is emphasized. For the most part, however, Straus follows closely the Greek text in his translation with some added whimsical flourishes. Headings, chapters and versification has been removed, so that readers can read the text in a less atomized way. 

Pairing Straus’s translation, are illustrations from Jennifer May Reiland, a New York City based artist who has been awarded residencies at the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, the Foundation des Etats-Unis as a Hale Woolley Scholar and the Drawing Center’s Open Sessions program. Her artwork adds another interpretative lens to Revelation. Her illustrations combine the apocalyptic debauchery of Hieronymus Bosch with the cartoonish busyness of a Where’s Waldo (if Waldo worked in the porn industry). She combines the grotesque and strange imagery of beasts, dragons and horsemen with explicit images of sex, violence and sexual violence. The result is a dramatic depiction of the war between evil and good. 

Reiland’s illustrations are not appropriate for a children’s Bible and I didn’t let my own kids (4-11) read this take of John’s revelation, but I didn’t think the imagery was gratuitous either. The words and images depict a world in chaos awaiting it’s renewal and coming judgment

However, the closing chapters of Revelation also image a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem come down and a new state of affairs where there is no more crying or pain or suffering. There are no images that depict this (only judgment). I wish that Reiland applied her skill to imaging this aspect of the eschaton (Straus, of course translated it). 

On the whole, I found this a pretty interesting take (not kid friendly, but then neither is a lot of Revelation anyway). I give this four stars. 

Note: I got a copy of this book via SpeakEasy and have provided
my honest review.

There is Nothing I Can Do Against Your Coming.

Today is the winter solstice—the shortest of days, the longest of nights. The early sunsets and the cloud cover of the Pacific North West means that our Advent ‘wait for the light” is as literal as it is metaphorical. We are in the long dark, awaiting the break of dawn.

But these days are dark in other ways too. We may have lingering sadness for friends and family we won’t see this Christmas. We may feel anxious about money, grieving the loss of a loved one, or feel the ache of a failed relationship. We may be depressed and lonely. This can be a difficult season for lots of reasons. In our house, we have been battling the flu. There is no good time to be sick, but the prospect of sick kids over Christmas feels pretty awful.

Jane Kenyon was no stranger to the darkness. Like many poets, she struggled with clinical depression. Her poem Having it Out With Melancholy describes her lifelong struggle with the dark:

1 FROM THE NURSERY

When I was born, you waited 
behind a pile of linen in the nursery, 
and when we were alone, you lay down 
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on 
everything under the sun and moon 
made me sad — even the yellow 
wooden beads that slid and spun 
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude. 
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death; 
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother, 
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts 
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases. 
I was already yours — the anti-urge, 
the mutilator of souls.

2 BOTTLES

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin, 
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax, 
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft. 
The coated ones smell sweet or have 
no smell; the powdery ones smell 
like the chemistry lab at school 
that made me hold my breath.

3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

4 OFTEN

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner 
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away 
from the massive pain in sleep’s 
frail wicker coracle.

5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT

Once, in my early thirties, I saw 
that I was a speck of light in the great 
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole 
human family. We were all colors — those 
who are living now, those who have died, 
those who are not yet born. For a few

moments I floated, completely calm, 
and I no longer hated having to exist.

Like a crow who smells hot blood 
you came flying to pull me out 
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear 
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.

6IN AND OUT

The dog searches until he finds me 
upstairs, lies down with a clatter 
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing 
saves my life — in and out, in 
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . . 

7PARDON

A piece of burned meat 
wears my clothes, speaks 
in my voice, dispatches obligations 
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying 
to be stouthearted, tired 
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine 
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night 
I feel as if I had drunk six cups 
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder 
and bitterness of someone pardoned 
for a crime she did not commit 
I come back to marriage and friends, 
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back 
to my desk, books, and chair.

8CREDO

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work 
but I believe only in this moment 
of well-being. Unholy ghost, 
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet 
on the coffee table, lean back, 
and turn me into someone who can’t 
take the trouble to speak; someone 
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing 
but sleep; can’t read, or call 
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do 
against your coming. 
When I awake, I am still with thee.

9WOOD THRUSH

High on Nardil and June light 
I wake at four, 
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air 
presses through the screen 
with the wild, complex song 
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment. 
What hurt me so terribly 
all my life until this moment? 
How I love the small, swiftly 
beating heart of the bird 
singing in the great maples; 
its bright, unequivocal eye.

Married to Donald Hall (another brilliant poet!) and a dog owner, she was able to stave off the dark long enough to leave behind some great poems, full of evocative imagery and emotion. As she faced the darkness and sometimes she found the beauty in the shadow:


Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles 
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come. 


Let Evening Come

I love that last stanza: Let it come, as it will don’t be afraid. God doesn’t leave us comfortless, so let evening come.

Darkness in the guise of leukemia would claim Kenyon’s life in 1995, just as she was hitting her stride as a poet. Her last poems are wistful and sad. And yet despite the struggle and the sadness and the lingering dark, there is a thread of hope that runs through her poetry. God does not leave us comfortless so let evening come. Morning is coming soon and with it joy.