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Grand Rapids, MI


Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

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There is a lot of suffering in the world.

You can't miss it if you have your eyes open. There are people around us every day suffering from various things - heart-brokenness, loneliness, bone cancer, job loss, chronic pain, hunger, divorce. Someone I know just lost her baby while 7 months pregnant. Someone else I know just lost their job. Even here in America, there is suffering, but we haven't seen anything compared to the rest of the world. I don't mean to be callous in any way, but my cynical side chuckles a little when I think of the fiscal cliff language and the doomsayers, especially when it's compared to the Great Depression. Just remembering a few chapters of the Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck would tell us that we have a ways to go before we get even close to that kind of reality. Right now, the fiscal cliff sounds more like a concern over having to cut back on our daily Starbucks or having to wait to buy the next iPhone when it comes out. That's not Depression. We sound more like the whining rich kid than anyone dealing with real suffering.

My heart goes out to those who are really dealing with real-life suffering through some of the things I've listed above. Or those around the world (and this includes our neighborhoods) who are worried about not getting food for their children or clean water to stay alive. I think about people who die from easily preventable diseases and millions of people who live in garbage dumps. It's real to them. They have already suffered loss or are suffering or continue to suffer it or are daily living a life of suffering.

Part of the problem comes from the world we have made for ourselves - a world in which we spend billions of dollars to avoid suffering at all costs. We try to get out of it as fast as we can. We avoid it. I've been reading a book lately about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (BTW... did you know his name was actually Michael... and his father got baptized and renamed himself and his son after a trip to Berlin and the land of the original Martin Luther?) Anyway, here are a couple lines I read that struck me:

...he would make much of unmerited suffering as a means of spiritual redemption.

...Evil must always be resisted, but any suffering, however undeserved, that facilitates the good of the whole must be embraced. The acceptance of unmerited suffering identifies the victim with the purposes of God.

"Unmerited suffering is a means of spiritual redemption." "Suffering... must be embraced." Think about that for a moment. Those are not the kinds of values I was necessarily raised on.  I was talking to a friend the other day whose husband had cancer, whose best friend had cancer, and who lost another really close friend to cancer in her early 50's - who was also a teacher to my kids. How do we make sense of this battle against suffering that comes as a result of the broken and fallen world in which we live and yet embrace this sufferings as a part of our spiritual redemption? I've always struggled with this idea in the writings of Paul. Here is what he says in Romans 5:2b-5:

And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Clearly to Paul, suffering is not something to be avoided at all costs, but is to be embraced as a part of our spiritual redemption. In fact, Romans 5 goes on to talk about the unmerited suffering of Jesus - the suffering servant - who bore the unmerited suffering caused by our sins upon his shoulders at the cross for our redemption.

In a world in which we do our best to build lives that guard us from all suffering, in which we seek to remove all suffering from our families and our bodies, in which we design every possible system to relieve us from suffering, we are called to a gospel - good news - that embraces suffering. And in many ways our suffering is merited because we have sinned, and we experience the consequences of sin all day long. Paul again reminds us in Romans 8 that even though we experience death all day long, we are still more than conquerors through our God who loves us in Jesus Christ who saves us.

I'm not sure we are to seek after suffering. I'm no sure we should embrace suffering as a great friend. But I do know this, that through the seasons of suffering, our faith is tried and tested and refined. I know that you can't manufacture the kind of character that is fashioned in the crucible of suffering. I know that you don't need a Savior unless there is something you need to be saved from.

One last thought: violence. Violence - even defensive violence - is often a natural response to fend off suffering now or potential suffering in the future. King's non-violent response to oppression and unjust suffering placed upon blacks during and before the Civil Rights movement (and still today) is born out of a deep theological commitment to join Jesus in the embrace of unmerited suffering as a means of spiritual redemption not only for the one suffering, but also for those who might be causing suffering or those observing. How we respond to suffering in itself is witness to our trust in the one who suffered much and overcame (King Jesus, not ML King). When we respond to suffering by violence, it may just be that we are missing a powerful opportunity to empathize with Jesus and so to become forged in a similar fire as he was.

Or maybe it's just late at night and I'm rambling.

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Risk Aversion


I've been writing a bit about failure and risk aversion in the last couple of posts. Overcoming the fear of failure and seeking to trust God when he asks us to move, and to take a leap of faith is a discipline and a skill that can grow within you and I as we trust God when he leads. I was reading "Your Church is Too Safe: why following Christ turns the world upside-down" today by Mark Buchanan. This is a great read. It's challenging and exciting all at the same time. I was reading through chapter four today yesterday and came across the following passages several hours after writing Failure and Failure 2.  Here, Mark is speaking about the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. He says this:

...there's not way to be a faithful servant of God and God's kingdom without taking some hell-bent-for-leather risks...

The getting in or losing out [of the Kingdom] has a lot to do with the kind of risks we take, or not. We're well schooled, from the writings of Paul and others, that certain kinds of people do not inherit the Kingdom of God: the wicked, the impure, the deceitful, the rage fiends, and such. What we're less prepared for, though we've had ample warning, is the kind of person Jesus adds to that list: the cautious.

Good and faithful servants are those who shoot the moon. They run with scissors. They leap before looking. The bad servant - the wicked, lazy servant - is the cautious one.

pp. 53-54

These are hard words for many of us to hear because we want to play it safe, make sure it will work, get assurance of our protection, and stay in control. But it appears this is exactly the opposite of what faith is about. God tells Abraham to get up and go - not telling him where - and he does. God asks Elijah to trust him when he faces the prophets of Baal, and he does, calling fire down from heaven. Shadrack, Meshack and Abednigo head into a fiery furnace and are not consumed. And the list goes on and on of faithful followers - the crazy ones. It's what Tim Hansel called "reckless abandonment" in his book Holy Sweat.

This all reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Frederick Beuchner in Wishful Thinking:

What God says... is “The life you save is the life you love.” In other words, the life you clutch, hoard, guard, and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself, and only a life given away for love’s sake is a life worth living. To bring this point home, God shows us a man who gave his life away to the extent of dying a national disgrace without a penny in the bank or a friend to his name. In terms of human wisdom, he is a Perfect Fool. And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring under not a cross, but a delusion.

Oswald Chambers says it this way in My Utmost for His Highest, the Patience of Faith:

Faith – [or trust] – is the heroic effort of your life.  You fling yourself in reckless confidence on God.  God has ventured all in Jesus Christ to save us.  Now He wants us to venture our all in abandoned confidence in Him… Again and again, you will get up to what Jesus Christ wants, and every time, you will turn back when it comes to that point, until you abandon resolutely… Jesus Christ demands that you risk everything you hold by common sense – and leap into what He says… Christ demands of the [person] who trusts in Him the same reckless spirit… that is daring enough to step out of the crowd and bank his [or her] faith on the character of God. [From My Utmost for His Highest]

Brennan Manning echoes the point in his book Ruthless Trust:

Unwavering trust is a rare and precious thing because it often demands a degree of courage that borders on the heroic.

Risk aversion is only truly safe when it is embedded in the womb of faith. I am free to seek, try, fail, and leap because I have a Father in heaven who will catch me when I fall if I am truly seeking to follow him in all things. It is this true safety that gives us life and the ability to take risks. And the thing is, he expects it.

Note how Eugene Peterson gets at this same passage, Matthew 25, in the Message: (Thanks to Eric Metcalf for pointing this out to me.)

"The servant given one thousand said, 'Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.'

"The master was furious. 'That's a terrible way to live! It's criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

"'Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this "play-it-safe" who won't go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.'"

So, apparently, faith and risk-aversion are diametrically opposed, and God prefers the former.

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Beyond Economy: China's Transformation with the Cross, Dr. Zhao Xiao


There are 4 premiere stages in the world, and China has a strong presence in all of them:

  1. Economic Stage - China has become an economic superpower
  2. Political Stage - China has a table on major political issues
  3. Sports Stage - hosted the recent Olympics
  4. Faith Stage - China is coming back to this stage

Leadership is about influence.  Leadership is also about the right direction.  If you lead people from here to there, and it's the wrong direction, what are you going to do?  Martin Luther's revolution and Protestantism is the most significant change of the last couple thousand years.  The discovery and settling of America is the most significant change of the last 500 years.  What will be the most significant change of the 21st century?  The most significant thing of the twentieth century is not 2 world wars, it is the rise of China because its rise will make hundreds of years of difference.  Even more than "rising up," China is "coming back."

Until the 14th century, China was  a leader in most areas, and even in the 1800's, China was the largest world economy and in the 1820's had 1/3 of the world's economy.  In the last century, China has fallen back, but the last 30 years, China is beginning to catch up again and is experiencing the fastest and most dramatic growth in human history.   By the end of this year, China will be the 2nd largest economy in the world, and by 2020 China will likely pass America and once again become the largest world economy.  This is China's come-back to the center stage of being a superpower and into its leadership role in the world.

Question:  Will being the greatest economic power ensure that China will be a leader in the world?

  • 1/ 3 of China was polluted
  • 1/5 of the river's were polluted
  • There are major resource challenges as many of the resources will be consumed in the near future.  There is much disparity, corruption, and great, critical, and severe challenges.

If China does not have the ability to export values and ethics, it will not become a superpower.   America has something called "The American Dream" and there are "American Values". China must go through more than economic changes.  It must go through values changes in order to mature as world leaders.  China must learn from the values of the whole world, and most importantly from Christian values and the Christian faith.

It was cool to hear Dr. Xiao as he thanked us for the missionaries that have come to China through the years, and hoping to see China become the largest sending nation in the future.

A couple questions I had in response to Dr. Xiao:

  • Was this a bit of a prosperity gospel mix, China style?
  • I heard some borderline civil religion and empire/ Christianity connections that I'm always wary of which remind me of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  I've seen this in America in which the gospel is co-opted, syncretized, and sometimes recreated with the success of the empire as the focus rather than the Kingdom of God.  I find this especially interesting in light of the 4 world stages that Dr. Xiao mentioned earlier... 4 stages that Rome and America (and England for that matter) have mixed together into an interesting civil religion.  I only hope that as China's Christian community grows that the leaders pay attention to the dangers of mixing empire and Kingdom, but I suppose that's for a longer discussion for another time.

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Bono: The church... 3 years later #tls09


These are some of my notes from the eighth session of the Willow Creek Leadership Summit.

Have you seen any difference 3 years later (since Bill's last interview at the Summity with Bono) in the way the church is responding to global poverty and AIDS?
"As a person who really enjoys going off on the church, you've really ruined it for me."
"We've referred to the church as the sleeping giant, but I didn't realize the giant could run that fast."
"The church is now in the lead, not in the rear."
"In the global village, Africa's down the lane..."
Bill challenged Bono on why he's not more committed to the local church, when he's so passionate about the place of the church.  Bono said he is part of the church, but he probably isn't more committed because of the denominationalism.
"It's not charity... it's something else... it's justice and equality."
It's not ok that a child dies because they can't get a 20 cent immunization.

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Synod: The Belhar Confession passes


The Belhar Confession was approved as a 4th standard confessional by the Reformed Church General Synod 2009, where I was privileged to be a delegate.  The vote was 166-65.  Now it goes to the Classes (akin to "Presbyterys") for a 2/3 required vote to make it official. To read the Belhar, click here.

Here's some background and information from our advisory committees:  click here.

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Synod: Discussion on the Belhar 2


Here are some of the discussion points from the floor of General Synod 2009 regarding the Belhar Confession:

  • We don't expect our confessions to be "complete" as theological statements.
  • This is not a "staff, top-down" process.  This work comes from us, the people of the RCA and delegates.
  • We need to pay more attention to how we treat all people inside and outside our doors.
  • The Belhar is a beginning, not an end.  Our actions will be more important than our words.
  • Racism is real.  The Belhar shows our shortcomings in how we treat those on the margins.  It calls the church to be the church it has never been.
  • Voting down this recommendation does not mean that the Belhar is removed.  There is another recommendation that will allow us to keep using it, but without exposing us to its possible dangers.
  • Clarification of Jim Brownson's statements requested about what "true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church" (Belhar) means and if that is in contradition of the Belgic Confession, and whether that statement means the visible or invisible church.  Brownson responded "visible."
  • Argument that the confession is steeped in the cross of Jesus Christ.
  • All 24 seminarians voted yes in favor of the Belhar.  (GS3 is a group of seminarians who are here.  They don't have true voting privelege, but do have privilege of the floor.)  One reason was that the Belhar addresses issues that our current confessions do not.
  • Our reservations to change the Belhar are more about our training, than about how the Holy Spirit works in different people in different ways.
  • "I have been too afraid to preach about racism, but have been pricked to the heart."
  • The Belhar was written by those who suffer the most.  How could we, as people of privilege, think that we could change it to make it better?
  • Justice from Christ is a claim that comes from Scripture that we have never made, and it is about the unity of humanity, not even about racism.
  • "If anyone feels the Belhar will open the church to them, then I will vote for it."
  • I have separation, enmity, and division in my white homogenous congregation.  We need the Belhar to tell us how to act towards one another.  I need it in my family when anger and hurt and bitterness comes up.  I treat my children in ways that I shouldn't.
  • It's time for us to love all people in all conditions.
  • I have never spoke to anyone in the global south who spoke against the Belhar.
  • The risk of voting against outweighs the risk of voting for the Belhar.
  • The Belhar gives future generations an understanding not only what it means to be reformed, but what it means to be a child of God.
  • I need this for my ordination vows.  I need this to hold me accountable.
  • The RCA and others around the worldneeds to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in South Africa   to make this witness.

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    Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-05-31


    • was trying tinychat as a net meeting ap. not sure how it works. #
    • Currently video chatting at click the link to see me... #
    • RCA Synod, Belhar, and homosexuality. I'll be there as a delegate, so if you have thoughts, send 'em my way. #
    • Grandpas' Games Dodgeball tournament next weekend. Sign up a team, send a kid to camp. #
    • Headed to MadCap to meet a friend I haven't seen in a long time. #
    • #churchunique enjoyed the last half of the webinar. very helpful in terms of engaging in movement together as a church #
    • Here's to hoping - "McAdam says Verizon would support phones powered by the Google-backed Android operating system by the end of the year." #
    • drinking coffee and watching Google Wave Developer preview while Levi sleeps #
    • home depot, lowe's, timbertown with my boys... a good day off of work. #
    • i have blogging binges and blogging fasts #
    • What? Can Rich DeVos reunite the CRC with the RCA? Hmmm... not sure what I think about that. #
    • Ed Dobson - year of living like Jesus (trailer... new book) #
    • RT @grpressnews: Hudsonville Board of Ed. plans site visit, 2nd interview w/ Nick Ceglarek for new superintendent #

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