Sunday, June 9, 2013

Service toward kinship - The wisdom of Father Gregory Boyle

I woke up this morning ready to run.  As I scanned the available podcasts for the 40+ minutes of my run, I decided to listen to Krista Tippett's interview "On Being" with Father Greg Boyle from the summer of 2012.

Find it here (or free at the iTunes store):

Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has run a remarkable operation called HomeBoy Industries, a collection of businesses and social services that provide resources for people affected by the reality of gangs in Los Angeles, since the early 1990s.  He has written a well-received book called Tattoos on the Heart, a book that has deeply affected my friend and pastor, Ruth Boven, who regular quotes from it in her sermons at Neland Church.

So while I was out on my run listening to the podcast interview from last summer at the Chautauqua Institute, I heard remarkable statements from Father G, including, "anything worth doing is worth failing at," and something to the effect that "service must lead to kinship."  So imagine my surprise when I opened my liturgy this morning at Neland Church and found that Pastor Ruth was preaching this morning, and her topic was from Amos, the prophet, on "Just Worship."  And one of her main sources for the sermon was from an interview Krista Tippett did with Father Greg Boyle on "The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, Kinship."  More than a coincidence, I think.

The passage in Amos that Pastor Ruth focused her sermon on was from chapter 5:18-24, subtitled "The Day of the Lord." In this little passage, something strange happens - we are warned that this "Day of the Lord" that Christians think they are waiting for might not be so awesome and wonderful as they think.   It might be like while we are running away from a lion, we meet a bear instead.  And Amos tells us that our religious festivals and activities are not the point, not at all, especially if we don't get the main point, which is to "Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!"  I have heard it suggested that our translation of "righteousness" in the New Testament should actually usually be "justice," so I would be interested in a language scholar's explanation of the two different words here.  In any case, Amos seems to be saying quite clearly that worship of God is meaningless, and even offensive, if it isn't accompanied by careful thought and action toward justice.  This will be hard, and require sacrifice.

 Perhaps the most interesting point of both Pastor Ruth's sermon on Just Worship, and Greg Boyle's interview with Krista Tippett revolves around the question of the relationship that develops in the act of service - something Boyle refers to as "kinship."  If we can't name people who are poor when we are asked to think of people in our close circle of family and friends, then our circles are probably too small.  This is a deeply challenging and disturbing suggestion to me, and I hope, to you.  Fits with the idea that a good sermon (church, Christian life etc)  will "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Paying attention as prayer, as paying attention

For our first staff meeting of the summer, I chose to read aloud from a couple of influential sources to set a tone for our work.  I first read a short passage from Peter Kreeft's little book, Prayer for Beginners, the piece was entitled "Work: Praying Always."  Kreeft suggests in this little piece that the New Testament mandate that we "pray constantly" can only make sense if we understand that our actions can be prayer.  "Therefore we can pray even in working (not just as we work); we can make our works prayers."

We then read aloud from Simone Weil's well-known essay, "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God."  Here, Weil makes a case that the point of learning, of work, of school studies, is not mastery of content, but rather the ability to pay attention.  And paying attention, really paying attention, by bringing "more light to the soul," will eventually bear its fruit in prayer.  "Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of paying attention which is the substance of prayer."  In an age of increasing distraction, and what appears to be decreasing abilities to paying attention, Weil's suggestion, for those who seek to understand the mysteries of prayer, is constructive.  Keep reading books, keep learning new things, keep exercising the muscles of attention.

But she warns that it won't be will power that enables the kind of attention we need to develop.  "Will power, the kind that, if need be, makes us set our teeth and endure suffering, is the principal weapon of the apprentice engaged in manual work.  But, contrary to the usual belief, it has practically no place in study.  The intelligence can only be led by desire.  For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work.  The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy.  The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running."

And finally, Weil broadens her definition of "love of God," to include neighbor-love.  She writes, "The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: "What are you going through?"  ... This way of looking is first of all attentive.  The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.  Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

"So it comes about that, paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them.  Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need."

And we finished with a poem from Wendell Berry, titled, "Some further words."  The poem explores the meaning of identity, of living "fully human" lives, and the goodness of "the domestic world of humans, so long as it pays its debts to the natural world, and keeps its bounds."  

We were reminded in these readings, (and the tone was set for our summer together), that we can learn from prophets and teachers at the margins of many faith traditions, and that the relationship between the material and the spiritual is a many-splendored, inexplicable, and wonderful mystery.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Celebrating 52 years together

I just turned 48 two weeks ago.  And tonight Julie and I celebrated with my parents their 52nd anniversary of their wedding, on June 1, 1961. 

We celebrated in style, with a three course gourmet meal in the home of a very long-time friend, Scott Hoezee, with able assistance from his son, Graham.  Bought at church a few months ago, the dinner was  a "service auction" item, and at this dinner we were treated with a foretaste of God's good kingdom through Scott and Graham's skill, affection, and hospitality.  From champagne with Mushroom Gratin with French Baguette Slices as an appetizer; we moved to our first course from Asia: Sesame-crusted Sashimi Tuna, Thai slaw, ginger and wasabi, and sesame dipping sauce.  After that our second course was Persian: Lamb Osso Bucco in a Moroccan tomato sauce, served with lamb Megueyez sausage and saffron risotto.  Then third course came from France: Seared breast of duck in a morel mushroom sauce, and confit of duck and truffled mashed potatoes.  All topped off with orange and cinnamon creme brulee served with fresh raspberries and blackberries.  All accompanied by red, and white wine along the way.  My comment halfway through dinner was that Scott was preparing us for the tastes of heaven, and he was. 

Fifty-two years of marriage is something worth celebrating.  Congratulations, Mom and Dad.

This is the second course, mmm.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Awe at La Sainte Chapelle

So this photo of Bastian was taken on Christmas Eve, 2011, in Paris at La Sainte Chapelle, an unbelievable Gothic gem, built during the thirteenth century by Louis IX, to house relics from Christ's passion.  The wall of light created by these enormous stained glass windows had everyone in our family in awe.  The stained glass windows are not just colorful - they tell the stories of the Old Testament, the life and passion of Christ, and the on-going stories of the Church, up to the time of Louis IX and the building of the chapel in Paris.  
We were thrilled for the privilege of being there.

You can vote for this in a family photo contest at this website:

Friday, January 4, 2013

On Creation Care

I was invited to offer some comments in Chapel yesterday at Calvin College, and, with just a few edits, I'll post my remarks below.  Special thanks to Steven Bouma-Prediger, for his excellent resource: For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, (Baker Academic, 2001/2010) from which I borrowed liberally, and also learned much.

Here is the text of my remarks:

Colossians 1:15-20                  
The Supremacy of the Son of God
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.         
“The Word of the Lord”

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes from prison in Rome.  His goal is to remind believers in Colosse that Jesus is supreme – the Creator and Redeemer, and Caretaker of the universe – Jesus is the center, the origin, the One in whom all things hold together, and through whom all things are being reconciled.  It isn’t exactly a letter about caring for creation, but let’s see how this idea that Jesus is at the center helps us understand our role in caring for God’s good creation.

The first thing you should all know is that I am not an expert on creation care.  When asked to kick this series off today, I seriously considered spending my entire fifteen minutes outlining for you the many ways that I could improve in my personal life in the area of creation care.  I own a car, a house, a dog even, and I eat meat and have used up more than my share of the world’s carbon and other resources.  Just like many of you.  I decided against this strategy, but I’m well aware that I can’t live up the standard set by one of my favorite characters from John Green’s book, The Fault in our Stars, Hazel Grace Lancaster.  When asked why she was a vegetarian, Hazel replied simply, “I want to minimize the number of deaths I’m responsible for.”  

 I do know some experts though.  On creation care, I have learned a lot from students over the past ten years while working and teaching here at Calvin.  The students who work with me in the Service-Learning Center, for example, always have valuable lessons to teach me from their own experiences, or from their courses, or from things they read.  Just yesterday I received an email link to a New York Times article from a recent alum, the article telling about some creative Indian engineers starting a company that provides power to dozens of small villages in rural India, using corn husks for fuel. 
 This happens to me all the time.  Once, on a trip with students to Birmingham, Alabama several years ago, while we were touring the Civil Rights Institute and learning all about the important period of civil rights activism during the 1950s and 60s, I remember asking myself and some student colleagues a difficult and important question.  I wondered, “How is my life today like the lives of those well-meaning white Christians during the early years of the civil rights movement in the South?”  What will be the issue that my grandchildren will look back on and ask me how I could have been a part of something so obviously wrong?  And unfortunately, there were many possible answers, but the one that stood out to me most dramatically had to do with my carbon footprint – the way I consume the world’s energy selfishly.  I’m still working out the implications of that realization.  I’ve also learned a great deal from my friend and colleague from the Biology faculty, Dave Warners, and from our entire Biology department.  This group of faculty, and many others, do a wonderful job educating us all on the importance of our roles as Earthkeepers. I learned from Dave for example, that the word “ecology” has at its root the idea of “home” – and that caring for one’s home is an excellent analogy for creation care.  We take care of the earth to the extent that we think of it like we think of our homes – as a place where we want things to be clean, safe, and hospitable to others.   In a short article I once wrote with Dave, we tried to connect the idea that we care for that which we love, and if we love God, we will love his cosmos – we wrote that “love involves setting aside self-interest for the sake of the beloved” – this love we have for God, for Jesus his Son, and for the Spirit, involves loving what they love, and scripture makes it very clear that God loves this cosmos, his created world.  I have also learned from my friends and colleagues Gail and Ken Heffner.  Not only does Gail direct huge grants to take care of the watershed surrounding our college, and Ken plan an incredible concert and film series every year, but together the two of them arranged to have their house in Eastown powered with solar panels on the roof.  They have literally put their money where their mouths are on this issue.  I’m grateful to colleagues and friends like these from whom I have learned to care more.

So what then?  If you love God, and God loves the world, how does that translate into creation care in your lives?  There are no obvious answers, but I should warn you that any attempt to be faithful in creation care will inevitably include some major challenges.  The society we inhabit is premised on a dependence on the resources the planet provides, but at a rate that doesn’t appear sustainable.  So how might we reduce our destructive impact on this world?  Especially in a dorm room where we can’t control the temperature, or in a cafeteria where food is easy to come by and that gets grown, shipped, prepared, and cleaned up with no effort on our part?  How do we begin to act justly for the creation?

In a wonderful quote attributed to Edmund Burke, we are reminded that “no one [has ever] made a greater mistake than the person who did nothing because he or she could not do everything.”

So let’s all start somewhere.

But before that, one other question, what about the people who say that creation care is a heresy, and a distraction from the real kingdom work of evangelism and missions?  This is a serious question, and one that is worth our time.  For today, I suggest that we try to avoid simplistic responses.  There is a complex conversation happening among Christians about our understanding of our responsibility, and the Bible can inform us, and God’s creation can also be a way of understanding God, and of discerning our place in the world.  So pay close attention to what God is saying to you, both through his written word, and his general revelation in creation.

Finding ways to make a difference in caring for creation is important.  Our relationship to God and to others is deepened when we care for what he cares for.  But your context makes a difference.  My suggestion for many of you is to pay close attention this Interim to the chapels, and to the different programs around campus that are part of the Kill-a-Watt program.  This series will provide lots of ways to learn about making a difference and demonstrating a care for creation.  There are also lots of opportunities to serve God both locally and around the country – I’m biased, of course, but I think if you come into the Service-Learning Center, we’ll be able to find plenty of opportunities for you to put your interest in creation care to work – whether it is working with the Plaster Creek Stewards, or signing up for a spring break trip to do trail maintenance or to learn about mountain top removal coal mining and its effect on local communities.  And of course, pay attention in your classes – caring for creation is an area of expertise for many of our faculty.

Another important question, it seems to me, has to do with “why attempting to make a difference matters even when it doesn’t seem to make any difference?”  Is the very act of trying important in a world so big and so wasteful as this one?  For lots of reasons, I say yes it is.  Our habits and practices shape who we are as people, and the living out of our faith is not necessarily always pragmatic or oriented around results.  

Eugene Peterson’s Message version of the Colossians passage reads like this: “Christ was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment.  And when it comes to the church, he organizes it and holds it together, like a head does a body.  He was supreme in the beginning and – leading the resurrection parade – he is supreme in the end.”  I love that line about how Christ is leading the resurrection parade.  A favorite line from Wendell Berry encourages us to “Practice resurrection.”  Give some thought to what practicing resurrection might mean for you, for the world around you, and then get moving.  Christ leads that parade.

To close I want to give you a list of ten reasons to care for creation, borrowed from Steven Bouma-Prediger, in his book, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care.  These reasons build on each other, but are not all of equal value.

First, self-interest – we all need clean air and water to live;  

Second, the earth is on loan to us from future generations – we owe it to our children and their children to provide an earth with clean air and water to survive;

Third, living simply is a gift and brings joy.  The old Shaker hymn tells it with the lines, “Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down, where you ought to be; and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.”  To critics who argue that if we all lived simply our economy would collapse, Bouma-Prediger suggests that “Christians most of all ought to question whether consumeristic materialism is worthy of allegiance.”  And the true joy in simple living rests on the space opened up for more authentic human community to develop in our lives.

Fourth,  we should care for the earth because “various forms of oppression are of a piece.  If we care for humans who are treated unjustly, then we should also care for an exploited earth.”  The existence of environmental racism requires that we connect our passion for social justice with a passion for earth justice.

Fifth, human beings have certain responsibilities to living creatures.  In other words, animals have rights, too, and these rights imply a responsibility for humans.

Sixth, a creature’s value, to God, to the earth, or to humans, generates our obligation to it, as caretakers.  Many non-human parts of God’s creation are designed to give glory to God, and in some cases, it is a human responsibility to ensure that those things can do that for which they were made.  So, for example, when a plant or animal species becomes extinct,  and humans bear responsibility for not protecting that plant or animal’s habitat, we bear the responsibility for the loss in glory to God that that living thing generated.

Seventh, our ability to flourish as citizens of the same globe is interdependent.  As theologian Jurgen Moltmann suggests, “The creatures of the natural world are not ther for the sake of human beings. Human beings are there for the sake of the glory of God, which the whole community of creation extols.”  And a reminder that God is the center of the universe, and not humans, is good for us. 
Eighth, God made humans stewards and caretakers of the earth, and we should care for creation because God said we must.  Loving God and neighbor are the two greatest commandments, and both of these are fulfilled in responsible creation care.

Ninth, since God made us in his image, we should act like God as best we can.   And since it is clear from creation and from scripture that God loves and cares for non-human creation, then we should too.

Tenth, we care for the earth because of gratitude.  The gift of this world, its beauty and complexity, its provision for our needs, and the needs of others, its natural praise of God is so overwhelming that we cannot help but connect this grace to a sense of gratitude.  The grace of God evokes gratitude in our hearts, and this gratitude leads us to care for that source of our joy.

Bouma-Prediger sums up his list of why we should care for the earth with the following words, and they are my encouragement to you as we close:  “So why care for the earth?  For many reasons – many good reasons.  Because our own existence is imperiled.  Because we owe it to our children.  Because an earth-friendly way of life is more joyful.  Because various forms of oppression are of a piece.  Because certain nonhuman creatures are entitled to our care.  Because the earth is valuable to us for its own sake.  Because it is in the best interest of the entire earth community.  Because God says so.  Because we are God’s image-bearers.  Because grace begets gratitude, and gratitude care.  Because, in sum, care for the earth is integral to what it means to be a Christian – it is an important part of our piety, our spirituality, our collective way of being authentically Christian.  And care for the earth expresses the fullness and vastness of the God whom we love and serve.” 

Pay attention to the Bible, to God’s Spirit, and to the creation.  We are each designed to uniquely respond to the beauty and the needs of this world.  Be grateful, and let’s find ways to be faithful together.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

How was your sabbatical?

From January 1 until June 1, I was privileged with a sabbatical from my work at Calvin College.  The purpose of this sabbatical, as I understand it, was to allow some space for me to read, write, reflect, and rest, and to prompt some fresh thinking for my work and scholarship.  So that's what I worked on.  I  spent time at home, in coffee shops, and most inspiring, at the headquarters of ICCF.  I read several institutional histories from colleges and universities with faith commitments - places like Augsburg, Baylor, Calvin, DePaul, Gordon, Gustavus Adolphus, Messiah, Notre Dame, Pepperdine, Valparaiso, Whitworth, Wheaton, and others.  I wrote lots of notes on these stories, and I've gotten well along on a draft of a plenary lecture I am scheduled to give at the 22nd annual Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts in October.  I was at home to say goodbye to my kids in the morning as they headed off to school, and I was often home when they've arrived back home from school.  We visited a nice beach and state park in South Carolina as a family for spring break, and we went with friends to see Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  I met a few students for breakfast every Wednesday morning, and I reconnected with dozens of friends from whom we were disconnected for the fall semester - over coffee or at one of Grand Rapids' wonderful beer pubs.  I organized, with some neighbors, a potluck Memorial Day picnic in our backyard, and was thrilled when nearly 50 of us gathered last week Monday.  And as the sabbatical time turned back into the normal routine, as May turned to June, I was, appropriately, in the middle of a national conversation about faith-based higher education and service-learning, at Messiah College in Pennsylvania - with colleagues and students from Calvin, and from around the country. 

Now I have been back at work for one week.  During that week I spent several hours each day in a faculty workshop on "Christian Engagement with People from Other Faith Traditions."  We read from J.H. Bavinck and Diane Obenchain (our seminar leader), Andrew Walls, and E. Stanley Jones, among others.  We talked about missions, and about inter-faith dialog and service.  It was inspiring and thought-provoking.  I also worked with four students and my colleagues in the Student Life Division, the Student Development Unit, and the Service-Learning Center, to get things unpacked, to hear about the year I missed, and to move into the summer with new energy, new rhythms of work and study, and a fresh vision for the work of connecting Calvin College with a host of service-learning and community engagement partners from around the city and around the country, and increasingly, from places where we send students for study abroad opportunities around the world.

I am encouraged by my work, my study, and my rest.  I see evidence of a growing host of people who understand what Wendell Berry means by affection, and who are spending their considerable intellectual, creative, and spiritual passions on building systems, institutions, families, communities, schools, and organizations that give witness to a coming kingdom of hope - a world turned right-side up.  This host includes, among many others, the Association for a More Just Society, the New Horizons Foundation, *culture is not optional, and ICCF - the Inner City Christian Federation, in Grand Rapids.

Thanks, Calvin College, for the gifts of this past year, including five months in Budapest and other places in Europe.  And for the rest of this winter and spring, and the hope of the summer and academic year that lies ahead. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

It all turns on affection

Wendell Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities earlier this week was titled: “It All Turns on Affection.” 

You can find it here, and while it is long, it is worth the time it will take to read:

In it he tells stories and offers some explanation for the times we live in – stories of his family’s land, an explanation of what an economy really is, and stories of what happens when people, over time, disconnect their “light within” from their practices, their business, their learning and their economies.  These are tragic stories, difficult explanations, and they only leave a very thin thread of hope for humanity.  But Berry very intentionally and very clearly leaves room for hope.  And for that I am grateful.

The hope that Wendell Berry offers and imagines comes from people he calls “stickers.”  For Berry, borrowing from his mentor and teacher Wallace Stegner, stickers are people who settle in and “love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”  He paints a picture of his family over the past several generations, and its relationship with a particular local landscape and its challenges and beauty.

My sense is that what this “poet, essayist, novelist, farmer and conservationist” is saying to me in my daily work and life is that things are connected, and it matters that we learn to love the world and all that is in it.  When we have forgotten affection, or how to care for the whole, we have brought tragedy and destruction, violence and poverty on ourselves and our world.  I think he is right here.  And I think I am to keep working on helping people figure out how to care – to plant seeds of affection in my own heart and in the lives of others.

Thanks Wendell Berry and all of my co-laborers in this field of affection.

Indeed, as Berry concludes, “this has not been inevitable.  And we do not have to live as if we are alone.”