A People’s History of Christianity (Review)

A People’s History of Christianity, named after A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

I liked this book.  But it was not what I expected and it could have been much better.  With the title it has, I expected a retelling of Christian history with a focus on figures, groups and movements that do not get top billing in more traditional history books.   Bass says she is specifically going to avoid a way of telling that focuses on C’s – Christendom, Calvinism and so on.  The first part of the book mentions many figures from the early church who are familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of church history.

This made me wonder who the target audience for this book was.  With so many familiar stories, I do not think it is pastors or seminary graduates.  Further, every single chapter (or at least, every one I recall) began with some sort of contemporary illustration.  Thus it is not  a straight up history book.  This is odd because it gets its title from a straight up history book, of much longer length, which was a best seller.  I suppose Bass, or the publisher, did not think such a history of Christianity would sell.

Ultimately, this book reads more like a Christian spirituality sort of book.  That is, the kind of book people read who want to grow in their faith.  But rather than being held together by Bible passages, this book is held together by the story of church history.  Such a book is valuable, any book that introduces people to Christians who have gone before and manages to inspire and not just inform is worthy of a wide reading.  Yet, and maybe I am just stuck on the title, I expected a history book.

As the story moves closer to present day, Bass does manage to tell more stories from the margins.  Maybe it is a case that such lesser-known stories have not survived from ancient days so she had few options till she got to more modern times.  At the same time, there are stories of people she could have mentioned but did not from more ancient days, fringe movements we do know about.  And I would have loved her to take a stab at painting a picture of how normal, everyday Christians lived in the early or medieval church.

Oh well, it is what it is.  Truly it is a good book, worth a read by any Christian.  Just do not expect history or anything comparable to Zinn’s work after which it is named.


We All Want to Fit In Somewhere – Thoughts on Popularity, Fear and Double Standards

Certainly in light of the recent decision of the PCUSA church to endorse gay marriage, a pastor whom I follow offered a blog post warning against seeking friends with the culture.  This post made me think for, though I’ve heard the same thing before, it seemed to make some questionable, even contradictory, points.

If you are a true follower of Christ, you will have enemies. A lot of enemies.

This isn’t a popular idea.

Many Christians seem more intent on fitting into culture, or at least getting its affirmation, than opposing it. And the entire idea of being an enemy, or having one, seems out of sync with the Christ life.

I have heard, even said, this sort of thing many times in my life.  Yet now I am growing skeptical of how it is presented.  While the idea that Christians will have enemies may be true, it is often forgotten that Jesus’ enemies were the religious establishment.  The recent case of the chaplain dismissed from preaching for questioning America’s love of violence is an example of this.  Those who talk about how important it is to oppose culture rarely, if ever, speak of our culture’s love of war and violence.  Most of the time the problem is gay relationships.  Jesus was accused of being friends with the wrong sort of people.  If we are following Jesus, will we scare away traditional religious people or skeptical outsiders?

So why is there such a great temptation for Christians today to opt for a popular stance instead of a prophetic one?

Such statements appear to me as a huge double standard.  First there is the assumption that Christians are taking such stances to be popular.  How on earth does this writer know that is their motivation?  Second, the exact same accusation could be pointed at to those who remain within the conservative evangelical Christian fold.  If you want to garner approval from the popular preaches and leaders of the day, if you want a place on the evangelical speaking circuit and to have your books fill the shelves of Christian bookstores, do not come out in favor of gay marriage.

To put it another way, perhaps it is true that a person, let’s call him Reggie, moves from a traditional belief on gay marriage to a progressive one accepting it.  And perhaps Reggie does this to gain friends with the worldly sort of people this blog post is warning us about.  It is just as possible that another person, let’s call him Carlton, continues to hold a traditional belief in order to gain friends within the evangelical Christian world.  He may continue to hold his beliefs in hopes of approval from Albert Mohler and John Piper or a place on the stage of a big conference.

My point is, if you accuse some of taking a position to gain popularity, you must recognize that there is another kind of popularity to be gained by taking the opposite position.  Most of the leaders of traditional evangelicalism are okay with you supporting violence, despite what Jesus said, as long as you toe the line elsewhere (As I noted here).  Where is the call to turn away from popularity to be prophetic in those situations?

If anything, there is more to fear by abandoning the tradition.  Sure, if you hold a traditional position you may find yourself being mocked by the Jon Stewarts of this world.  But if you abandon the traditional position you are told you face an eternity of burning in the flames of hell.  If fear of being made fun of causes some to move one way, fear of eternal torture certainly moves some the other.

Perhaps rather than accusing people of taking positions solely to be popular, we ought to listen to the reasons causing people to change their beliefs.  And we ought to be just as critical for why we hold, or change, our own beliefs.

God Behaving Badly (Review)

How could God command genocide?

Why does God endorse slavery?

God is a sexist monster, isn’t he?

These are the sorts of questions that frequently come up in discussions about the Bible, whether those discussions are with skeptics or sincere Christians working through the Bible for the first time.  Such questions have always been there, the first Christians had to spend much time, and spilled much ink, seeking to answer them.  But it seems such questions are becoming continuously louder in our culture as more people move away from faith.  At the most extreme, the fact that God in the Old Testament commands such barbaric actions is proof such God, any God, does not exist.

I think this question is much more challenging then issues related to science, for example.  Whether Darwinian evolution is true or not seems, to me, irrelevant to the question of God’s existence.  But a God who commands the extermination of whole people groups or institutes laws that make women second class citizens?  Such a God as portrayed in the Bible makes us question the validity of the Bible and its God.

That said, there are many great books out there that provide answers to these questions.  I think “answers” is better then “answer”  because the seriousness of these questions shows there is no easy answer that simply takes all questions away.  This is one thing I most appreciated about David Lamb’s book God Behaving Badly – he takes the question seriously and though he offers many answers, in the end he admits this remains a difficult issue.  Lamb’s book tackles many of the common questions such books address, such as the genocide of the Canaanites and the apparent sexism of the Old Testament God.  But he goes on to address other issues, such as whether God is near or distant, which are not always addressed.

There are a lot of books out there on this subject.  Lamb’s is a welcome addition and a must-read for any who have questions on these topics.

The only problem I found in the book is when Lamb refers to another scholar, Eric Seibert.  Apparently Seibert argued that if the Bible says God committed such atrocities we can simply say God did not do such things for the God revealed in Jesus would not do such things.  I have not read Seibert, but his argument reminded me of Peter Enns whose recent book I did read.  Lamb says he is not comfortable with “rejecting” the Old Testament accounts.  This does not seem fair of Enns (or Seibert) for I do not think they would say they are rejecting anything.  Reinterpreting? Yes.  Enns emphasizes the human aspect and says that God wants such stories in scripture even if they portray him wrongly.  A minor issue to be sure, but it seemed to misrepresent those who hold such positions.

Finally, If you are interested in this topic, definitely check out Peter Enns’ recent book that takes a slightly different take on the issue – The Bible Tells Me So: How Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read it.

Also, Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? and Christopher Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand.


Habbakuk’s Conversation with God (Weekly Word)

Last night at CSF we continued our study of what I am calling secondary characters in the Bible, the sort of people who may not get top billing but who play an important part in the story.  We moved into the minor prophets last evening, looking at Habakkuk.  Originally I was going to do Habakkuk the week prior to Spring Break as it pairs well with the story of Job which we had looked at the previous week.  Both books discuss the problem of evil and suffering and ask where is God or how could God let this happen.  Unfortunately, snow led to that night being cancelled.

First off, to set the stage for the prophets, I summarized the story of scripture up to that point:

*God Creates and Humanity lives in Relationship with the Creator

*Humanity Rebels and the Relationship is Broken

*God launches a rescue mission to restore this relationship – this mission begins with the call of Abraham and the promise to bless all nations through his descendants.  It then moves through the rescue of Israel from slavery and the giving of the Law through their becoming a nation and eventually rejecting God as king.  In this Israel, who was to be an example to other nations, wants to be like other nations and have a king.  God gives them a king, some are good but many are bad.  Bad kings lead them away from God so God sends prophets to call them back.

Enter Habakkuk.  Being such a short book we read it and discussed it rather then me just talking about it.  Habakkuk 1:2-4 begins with Habakkuk complaining, wanting to know where God is and why God is silent in the face of violence.  God responds (Habakkuk 1:5-9) by saying the Babylonians will soon arrive to punish those who are violent among God’s people.  This is not the response Habakkuk wanted, as the Babylonians are even worse (1:12-17).  God response includes what is now a well-known statement, “the righteous will live by faith” (2:4).

We spent time reflecting on what this means.

1. Such a faith is a trust in God’s entire plan for the whole world – God says in Hab 2:14 that the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.  In other words, God’s rescue mission will succeed no matter how dark things look from Habakkuk’s perspective, or ours.

2. Along with that, such faith remembers what God did in the past, recognizes God is faithful and thus lives based on God’s promises for the future.  Important to say then that faith is not just assent or belief, rather it is an active trust that plays out in real life.

3.  At the same time, we see from Habakkuk’s conversation with God that when we struggle to understand what is happening in our world, it is okay to ask.  Even to complain.  This is what real relationship entails, even relationship with God.

4. Finally, such faith leads to prayer and praise.  Habakkuk 3 is a long prayer and is a model for where we end up through our conversations with God.

I think there is a lot in Habakkuk that is very relevant to us as we live out our faith in the contemporary world.

The Dialogue of Catherine of Sienna (Listening to the Saints)

Over the past few years I have worked through various classics of Christian spirituality as part of my daily devotional.  I have found it incredibly life-giving to, in addition to reading scripture, to read the words of these saints of Christ who have gone before us.  Most recently I read Catherine of Sienna’s Dialogue which she wrote around 1377.

This is not really a review, rather it is a list of quotes, in the order they came in the text, that struck me with a few words on each on why they struck me.   Remember, this dialogue is written in first person from God’s perspective so the voice the reader hears is that of God speaking to Catherine.  Despite that, when I comment on it I will take it as Catherine’s words.

“because love of Me and of her neighbor are one and the same thing, and, so far as the soul loves Me, she loves her neighbor, because love towards him issues from Me.”Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 533-534). . Kindle Edition.

There is an equivalence between loving God and loving neighbor, you cannot claim to love God if you do not love neighbor.

“I use the word temporal for the things necessary to the physical life of man; all these I have given indifferently, and I have not placed them all in one soul, in order that man should, perforce, have material for love of his fellow. I could easily have created men possessed of all that they should need both for body and soul, but I wish that one should have need of the other, and that they should be My ministers to administer the graces and the gifts that they have received from Me.” Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 555-558). . Kindle Edition.

I found the idea that God gave out gifts to different people to force us to rely on each other to be quite beautiful.

Wherefore, all of you, vessels made of this stuff, were corrupted and not disposed to the possession of eternal life — so I, with My dignity, joined Myself to the baseness of your human generation, in order to restore it to grace which you had lost by sin; for I was incapable of suffering, and yet, on account of – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 782-784). . Kindle Edition.

At the moment that the soul receives Holy Baptism, original sin is taken away from her, and grace is infused into her, and that inclination to sin, which remains from the original corruption, as has been said, is indeed a source of weakness, but the soul can keep the bridle on it if she choose. Then the vessel of the soul is disposed to receive and increase in herself grace, more or less, according as it pleases her to dispose herself willingly with affection, and desire of loving and serving Me; and, in the same way, she can dispose herself to evil as to good, in spite of her having received grace in Holy Baptism. Wherefore when the time of discretion is come, the soul can, by her free will, make choice either of good or evil, according as it pleases her will; and so great – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 802-810). . Kindle Edition.

Not only did I give you liberty, but, if you examine, you will see that man has become God, and God has become man, through the union of the divine with the human nature – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 827-828). . Kindle Edition.

The first and third quote here push us to the central truths of God as Trinity and Jesus as fully God and fully human.  Catherine is totally in line with the church fathers here, echoing Athanasius and others.  The second quote reminds me that she is definitely a medieval Roman Catholic and it presents a Catholic understanding of grace.

A false Christian is punished more than a pagan, and the deathless fire of divine justice consumes him more, that is, afflicts him more, and, in his affliction, he feels himself being consumed by the worm of conscience, though, in truth, he is not consumed, because the damned do not lose their being through any torment which they receive – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 834-837). . Kindle Edition.

The traditional view of hell is apparent in Catherine, though not everyone receives equal punishment.

And do you know why they cannot desire good? Because the life of man ended, free-will is bound – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1253-1254). . Kindle Edition.

So you see that in those bonds of love in which they finished their life, they go on and remain eternally. They are conformed so entirely to My will, that they cannot desire except what I desire, because their free-will is bound in the bond of love, in such a way that, time failing them, and, dying in a state of grace, they cannot sin any more. And their will is so united with Mine, that a father or a mother seeing their son, or a son seeing his father or his mother in Hell, do not trouble themselves, and even are contented to see them punished as My enemies – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1287-1291). . Kindle Edition.

One book I want to read is Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa for in it he writes of how we continue to grow closer to God for all eternity, an idea I have encountered elsewhere.  Catherine apparently does not hold this, instead you are frozen in your attitudes at the moment of death.  I wonder if this is an Eastern vs. Western difference with Catherine giving the Catholic view.  I find the Eastern one more appealing.

You see then, that the transformation is not in His Face, when He comes to judge with My Divine Majesty, but in the vision of those who will be judged by Him. To the damned He will appear with hatred and with justice. And to the saved with love and mercy – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1317-1320). . Kindle Edition.

Still on the topic of hell and afterlife, the idea here is not that there are two different locations but that God is everywhere and to some this leads to hatred of God (those in hell) and to others this is love (those in heaven).

For the soul, from her nature, always relishes good, though it is true that the soul, blinded by self-love, does not know and discern what is true good, and of profit to the soul and to the body. And, therefore, the Devil, seeing them blinded by self-love, iniquitously places before them diverse and various delights, colored so as to have the appearance of some benefit or good; and he gives to everyone according to his condition and those principal vices to which he sees him to be most disposed — of one kind to the secular, of another to the religious, and others to prelates and noblemen, according to their different conditions – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1398-1403). . Kindle Edition.

We desire good, but do not always know what the good is.

And if tribulations on man’s account, or infirmity, or poverty, or change of worldly condition, or loss of children, or of other much loved creatures (all of which are thorns that the earth produced after sin) come upon them, they endure them all with the light of reason and holy faith, looking to Me, who am the Supreme Good, and who cannot desire other than good, for which I permit these tribulations through love, and not through hatred – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 1458-1461). . Kindle Edition.

Those in Christ are able to persevere in the face of trials.

Wherefore were it possible for them to have virtue without toil they would not want it. They would rather delight in the Cross, with Christ, acquiring it with pain, than in any other way obtain Eternal Life. Why? Because they are inflamed and steeped in the Blood, where they find the blaze of My charity, which charity is a fire proceeding from Me, ravishing their heart and mind and making their sacrifices acceptable – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2071-2074). . Kindle Edition.

For Catherine, as for most traditional spiritual writing, there is no easy path to growing in God.  More than that, those who truly desire to grow closer to Jesus, in virtue, would not want an easy path if there was one!  I find that challenging to my laziness and quickness to cut corners.

Every light that comes from Holy Scripture comes and came from this supernatural light. Ignorant and proud men of science were blind notwithstanding this light, because their pride and the cloud of self-love had covered up and put out the light. Wherefore they understood the Holy Scripture rather literally than with understanding, and taste only the letter of it, still desiring many other books; and they get not to the marrow of it, because they have deprived themselves of the light, with which is found and expounded the Scripture; and they are annoyed and murmur, because they find much in it that appears to them gross and idiotic – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2104-2109). . Kindle Edition.

Wherefore, I say to you, that it is much better to go for counsel for the salvation of the soul, to a holy and upright conscience, than to a proud lettered man, learned in much science, because such a one can only offer what he has himself, and, because of his darkness, it may appear to you, that, from what he says, the Scriptures offer darkness. The contrary will you find with My servants, because they offer the light that is in them, with hunger and desire for the soul’s salvation – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2111-2114). . Kindle Edition.

Spiritual people, those close to Jesus, do not always appear to be the smartest or most glamorous.  Look for such servants of Jesus though, for they will give you true counsel.

When, therefore, she sees herself to be ineffably loved by Me, she loves every rational creature with the self-same love with which she sees herself to be loved. And, for this reason, the soul that knows Me immediately expands to the love of her neighbor, because she sees that I love that neighbor ineffably, and so, herself, loves the object which she sees Me to have loved still more – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2210-2212). . Kindle Edition.

to Me, because I have loved you without being Myself loved, and without any consideration of Myself whatsoever, for I loved you without being loved by you — before you existed; it was, indeed, love that moved Me to create you to My own image and similitude. This love you cannot repay to Me, but you can pay it to My rational creature, loving your neighbor without being loved by him and without consideration of your own advantage, whether spiritual or temporal, but loving him solely for the praise and glory of My Name, because he has been loved by Me – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2217-2220). . Kindle Edition.

Is our love for others driven by selfishness or a true concern for them?  As we receive unconditional, undeserved love from God we repay this love to others in the same way.

It is therefore impossible to fulfill the law given by Me, the Eternal God, without fulfilling that of your neighbor, for these two laws are the feet of your affection by which the precepts and counsels are observed, which were given you, as I have told you, by My Truth, Christ crucified – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2225-2227). . Kindle Edition.

because she is stripped of mercenary love, that is of love for Me based on interested motives, and is clothed in perfect light, loving Me in perfect purity, with no other regard than for the praise and glory of My Name, serving neither Me for her own delight, nor her neighbor for her own profit, but purely through love alone. Such as these have lost themselves, and have stripped themselves of the Old Man, that is of their own sensuality, and, having clothed themselves with the New Man, the sweet Christ Jesus, My Truth, follow Him manfully. These are they who sit at the table of holy desire, having been more anxious to slay their own will than to slay and mortify their own body – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2448-2453). . Kindle Edition.

More on love of neighbor and what true love is.

The just man does not turn his head to admire his past virtues, because he neither can nor will hope in his own virtues, but only in the Blood in which he has found mercy; and as he lived in the memory of that Blood, so in death he is inebriated and drowned in the same – Catherine of Siena, Saint (2010-06-20). The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (Kindle Locations 2941-2943). . Kindle Edition.

How often do we turn to remember our past triumphs!  Catherine would say a true holy person does not do that..

Community and Interpretation, Economy and Desire (Two Book Reviews)

I’ve been busy of late, a work trip to Maryland with Penn State Berks students for Spring Break being the primary cause of business (with my own crazy kids as a constant source).  That said, I am always reading and I have two books to share about today.  Both are from The Church and Postmodern Culture Series, a series of always fantastic books of which I have reviewed a few before.

First, Merold Westphal’s Whose Community, Which Interpretation.  Westphal wrote that he wanted to call this book Taking Gadamer to Church as much time is spent in conversation with the philosophy of Gadamer, a 20th century philosopher who wrote on hermeneutics.  The questions Westphal is getting it all relate to how we interpret the Bible.  As opposed to the high and mighty claims of some who state we can reach universal objectivity, Westphal (and Gadamer) continually emphasize our context as people.  In this context we all have biases and presuppositions and we bring all of this background to the text.  Yet there is no need to fear relativism, and Westphal is not saying this leads to an inability to know anything.  We are able to learn as we bring our biases to the text, though once we learn something new we have new biases which we now bring to the text, creating a sort of hermeneutical circle.  Or, to put it in more Christian lingo, especially relevant to Protestants, we can say we are ever-reforming as we reflect on the text in community with others.

What I most like about this approach is it retains a humility that is often absent from interpretative methods that claim universal and unbiased objectivity.  I highly recommend this book for pastors and any Christian interested in philosophy and interpreting scripture.  When you finish this, and if you like it, I think another book to check out would by Myron Penner’s The End of Apologetics.

Second, Daniel Bell’s The Economy of Desire.  This book is an extended critique of capitalism in conversation with the philosophy of Foucault and Deleuze.  I enjoy books such as this because I have always wanted to read and understand philosophy but have never had the time or patience to wade through the likes of such writers.  Someone like Bell not only explains aspects of philosophy but applies it to real life.  Bell’s argument is that capitalism shapes our desires in numerous ways that we may not even be able to imagine.  For example, Mardi Gras may appear to be a revolt against conformity, a step outside the normal day-to-day of capitalist america, but Bell shows how the very beads exchanged on Mardi Gras are a huge business, created in factories far away.  Capitalism is at work.  What capitalism does is tells us to feed our desire, to become a purchaser.  The hope of capitalism would be that even those who are poor producers, such as the ones working in the sweatshop making the beads, could become purchasers.

Bell contrasts this with Christian faith.  While capitalism calls on us to feed our desire, Christianity calls on us to reform our desires.  What capitalism sees as normal, Christianity sees as sin.  Bell brings both scripture and the Christian tradition to this, emphasizing that Christianity seeks the common good and human flourishing, things that capitalism has little place for.  Bell shows this by much reference to the originators of capitalism (Adam Smith) and its Christian defenders today.  Yet if you fear that Bell, in criticizing capitalism, is embracing some sort of leftist socialism, have no fear.  He resists writing as if our choice is two worldly systems, calling on Christians to recognize a bigger and better system.  For that reason, this is a message Christians need to hear.  Too many have so wedded their faith and culture that to challenge something like capitalism may be to challenge Christianity itself.  Bell shows the problems in capitalism and even provides a way forward for how Christians can live in a better economy.

Reflections on a Decade of Short Term Mission trips

When I moved to University Park, the “main” campus of Penn State, for my junior year I got involved in Christian Student Fellowship (CSF).  Later that year I went on my first short term mission trip, rebuilding houses in North Carolina.  The next year we went to Miami and worked with Habbitat for Humanity.  Then I took three years off to attend seminary before returning to work, at Penn State Berks, as a campus pastor in 2005.  Every single spring break we take a mission trip and I just realized that this makes ten years in a row of trips for me as staff.

In the last year or so I’ve noticed some blogs and articles questioning short term mission trips, with others stepping up to defend them.  Many of the criticisms are valid, though they seem to be more focused on cross-cultural, oversees type trips a youth group might take over the summer.  We’ve done two such summer trips in my time at Berks, but most of our trips do not fit the stereotype of tourism masquerading as a mission trip.

At the same time, after ten years of trips I find myself reflecting.  Long graduated students, wonderful memories and fun stories keep coming to mind.  And I wonder, why do we do it?  Just because it is spring break and we do it every year?

1. We Go to Serve – We do not always have the most skilled group of students, but every year they work hard.  I remember mudding out houses in New Orleans months after Katrina in 2006, painting a house in Joplin in 2012, helping kids read in DC in 2013 and hanging drywall in  New York in 2014.  Some students were terrified of these tasks, whether reading to kids or working with power tools.  But they learned, with the help of great leaders.  After one week it may not appear much was done, but usually months after we are home I receive emails with pictures of completed houses, worked on by our group and many others.

2. We Go to Learn – Staying in the United States may not appear to be “cross-cultural”, but as we leave our comfort zone students are confronted with an often unfamiliar world.  I remember the shock of one girl in Miami in 2010 as she saw a homeless person eating out of the garbage.  Seeing images of hurricane destruction or homeless people on the news is one thing, seeing it up close is something else.  The way I see it, university is the time for students to get an education.  What CSF does on these trips is contributes to this education (I’ve asked Penn State for a kickback in this, they’ve never complied!).  The students return with a bigger vision of the world and their place in it.

3. We Go to Build Community – Every year when we return from the trip, our students are more close-knit then when they left.  It  makes me wish Spring Break was in October.  The relationships that form on this trip are the equivalent of months spent on campus.  Throw a bunch of college students together for  a week and they will grow closer.

4. We Go to Grow Closer to God – They do not just grow closer to each other, but to God.  We have Bible studies and prayer and such on campus year-round.  But it is different on these trips.  Maybe it is the daily rhythmn, maybe it is being away from distractions, but as students do private devotions each morning and have large group discussions at night, they experience God in new ways.

5. We Go as an Open Group – I am not sure how to word this one.  When I said above we build community, the obvious goal is not to create a Christian bubble.  That is why I mention this point – There is no requirement that one must be a Christian to attend.  This trip is open to, and has included, atheists and Muslims and others who are just unsure.  They go because they want to spend a week serving others, or maybe they just do not want to go home.  But we love when people who do not identify as Christians choose to come and work to help others alongside of us.  Again, it is in these situations that real life change (see 3 and 4 above) happens.

6. We Go to Have Fun – Every year the students have a blast.  I have fond memories of eating crawfish in the French Quarter (2008 I think it was), of the bus breaking down on the way to the Gulf Coast, of seeing many national monuments and some museums in NY and DC, of standing where three states touch just outside Joplin.  I remember games of Dutch Blitz and Catan, delicious filling meals and sparse, nearly unedible ones.  But the fun does not just happen in our spare time, it is fun working together.

7. We Go to Build Habits – Part of the function of campus ministry is to help students build good habits they will carry with them through life.  Spring break helps with this as students encounter great organizations doing fantastic work (Mennonite Disaster Service, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Center for Student Missions and more).  They may discover skills they can use on such trips in the future as part of a church, or even in their career.  Or, they may further build the habit of helping others so when their neighbor needs help hanging drywall or fixing a toilet, they have experience.

There are probably more reasons.  I know that the students do not return from these trips unchanged.  They are highlights of their college career that are both fun and a step in their discipleship to Jesus Christ.

So pray for us next week as we go on our trip to Crisfield, Maryland to help rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

The Drama of Doctrine – Review

Kevin Vanhoozer’s book The Drama of Doctrine has been on my list for years and after finishing it, I wish I would have read it sooner.  Vanhoozer has noticed that doctrine has fallen on hard times in the Christian church and part of his goal is to reclaim the importance of doctrine.  Part of the reason Christians ignore doctrine is that it appears irrelevant.  Vanhoozer’s task is to reclaim doctrine by connecting it to the daily life of individuals and the church as a whole.

He does this by emphasizing the great drama of God acting in the world from creation on into Christ and the church.  There are echoes of NT Wright here (Though perhaps Wright echoed Vanhoozer?  I’d have to check the publication dates) as we see ourselves living in the midst of this continuing drama.  With the future consummation still to come, we live in the same Act of the drama as the one the early Christians lived in.

Christians then are actors in the great drama.  Vanhoozer takes us through it, using lots of terminology from theater.  God the Father is the author while the Spirit acts as the director.  He introduces us, at least me, to the role of the dramaturge.  One thing I most appreciated, and found incredibly helpful, was how he related scripture to the church community and tradition.  Overall this book is challenging, but worth every minute of it.  I think any and every pastor would benefit from working through this book.  Churches would benefit from leaders who see doctrine in this way.  It is a must read.