Journeying to the Dark Tower (Reflections on Stephen King’s magnum opus)

Last year I read The Gunslinger by Stephen King.  Published way back in the 70s, this book tells the story of the last Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, pursuing the demonic man in black across the desert.  Roland’s goal is to find the mythical Dark Tower, the center of all existence.

I love fantasy stories so I was hooked.  Over the next nine months or so, I read the remainder of the series as well as some of King’s other books and short stories that tie in.  I won’t bother summarizing them here; if you want to read that sort of thing you can find such summaries all over the place.

Throughout the series, like in any good series, the world of the story expands.  New characters are introduced, new environments are experienced and the story becomes richer.  King resists introducing too many new characters though and succeeds in keeping the focus on Roland and his companions (his ka-tet).  There’s not really a final grand battle such as you see in many fantasy stories, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter.  Such final battles are fine, but I appreciate how King went a different route.

Without giving too much away, what strikes me most as I reflect on the series is how it is much more about the journey then the destination.  The ending is even kind of disappointing.  In a post script, King admits the difficulty with ending such a series.  Nearly any ending, with all the build up of Roland reaching the Dark Tower, would fall short of people’s expectations.

Of course, this is how real life is.

You look forward for months to a new movie and it does not live up to the hype.

You work hard to graduate college in hopes of landing your dream job and struggle to find work.

My daughter has been begging all summer to go to Chuck-E-Cheese and when we finally took her she was ready to go home after about twenty minutes.

Maybe the value in life really is the journey more than the destination.  That sounds clichéd.  Yet if we who call ourselves Christians scoff at this idea, perhaps we should pause.  This idea is not new.  Look at John Bunyan’s classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress.  The entire story is about the pilgrim’s journey through the world.  It is the journey that draws us in.  Sometimes the ending is satisfying (such as Lord of the Rings) and sometimes it might not be.  But the story, the journey, is what compels us.

It is in the journey that we are shaped.

It is in the journey where we are faced with choices that will define us.

It is in the journey where we meet companions who will help us.

Life after death is a great mystery.  Christians and other religious people can say some things about what this life will be like, though no one really knows for sure beyond a few vague generalities.  But as we look towards that future goal,

as Roland did towards the Dark Tower

as Frodo did towards Mt. Doom

As Christian did towards Heaven

as Jesus did when he set his face towards Jerusalem

We can find strength to journey on in daily life.

All that to say, if you want to read a great story, check out the Dark Tower series…

 

 

Trading Anger for Sympathy

A couple weeks ago my family and I went camping and left our dog with my sister and her husband.  When we returned home we stopped to pick up our dog.  We opened the door and our dog unceremoniously ran right past us and up the street!

While my wife ran after him, yelling his name, I went in the house to grab his leash and a few treats in the hopes of luring him back.  By the time I caught up to my wife, Skippy had stopped running.  He peed on a bush and ran back to us.  We were about three blocks up the street from my sister’s house.

Then I heard a voice.

“What’s your address?”

I turned around and there was a man sitting in his truck.  My initial thought was that he was lost and thought he’d ask for directions.  I told him we weren’t from this town.

“I was just wanting to know so I could bring my dog to go to the bathroom in your yard!”

Oh, now I get it.  We were standing in this guy’s yard!  He magically got home at the exact moment we caught our dog.  I immediately sought to clear up this misunderstanding.  I told him that our dog had run away and we had just caught him.  Further, my wife had checked and he had not pooped in the yard.  But the man was not deterred.  More gruff words followed.

Again I tried to explain how our dog ran away.  He didn’t want to hear it.  With a bit of fear of the stranger creeping in, we walked away.

I was struck with anger.  WHAT A JERK!

But soon my anger turned to something else: questioning.  What had happened in this man’s day, or life, to cause him to see two parents and two little kids with their dog and automatically assume the worst?  He didn’t see us and ask if we needed help.  He didn’t take time to question what we were doing.  He jumped directly to the worst case scenario: that we had taken our kids out to show them how to teach a dog how to deface property.

Maybe if I was a teenager, alone or with a buddy, then I’d expect someone to assume the worst.  And my own white privilege has certainly trained me to expect to get the benefit of the doubt.  But I am haunted by this question:

What happens to a person to make them assume the worst motives in others?

Honestly, it made me sad.  It made me sympathize with whatever forces brought this man there.  It made me desire to assume the best towards others for my own life.

How do our assumptions and biases shape our understanding of reality?

 

 

My Ten Favorite Books in 2015

Here are my favorite reads from 2015 – not books released in 2015 but favorites among ones I read:

  1. David Bentley Hart – The Experience of god: Being, Consciousness, Bliss – Hart is one of my favorite authors and I think this is his best book and probably makes it into my top ten books of all time.  It is not as difficult as some of his previous works but it will still stretch you.  This book changed how I think and talk about God.  I think every Christian pastor, or anyone interested in theology, ought to read this.
  2. Napolean: A Life by Andrew Roberts – This is a fantastic, gripping bio of one of the great men who ever lived.  As I read I was visibly angry when Napolean invaded Russia, knowing how it would end up.  I recall stalking around the house, asking how he could make such a mistake!  If you like bios, read this one.
  3. On Social Justice by Basil the Great – This book, along with John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Poverty both challenged and disturbed me.  There is value in these books that are centuries old, value that goes far above what is marketed as Christian literature today.  Both of these books will make you think about money and how to serve Jesus in the world today.
  4. The Cappadocian Fathers – Speaking of reading old books, I thoroughly enjoyed reading works on the Trinity from the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit), Gregory Nazianzus (Five Theological Orations) and Gregory of Nyssa (The Great Catechism).  Classic works of Christian thinking on the Christian Trinitarian understanding of God.
  5. Johnny Cash: A Life by Robert Hilburn – Everything I used to know about Cash came from the movie Walk the Line.  This book greatly expanded my understanding, and admiration, for Cash.  That admiration is not naive, the man had all sorts of issues throughout his life.  If you like Johnny Cash or bios, check this one out.
  6. Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis – Pope Francis took the world by storm and, apart from all the hype, his first book (encyclical) is fantastic.  Along with this, I also appreciated his second book On Care for Our Common Home as well as Pope Benedict’s God is Love.
  7. Who’ Afraid of Relativism by James KA Smith – Smith is also one of my favorite authors and I think this book, like many of his others, is a must-read.
  8. Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood – Wood tells the story of America from 1789 through 1815.  I found myself admiring Hamilton and learning a lot here.
  9. God Behaving Badly by David Lamb – Lamb is an Old Testament scholar whose first book seeks to help Christians understand how the God portrayed in the Old Testament, who comes across so mean, is the real and true God Christians worship.
  10. Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans – Evans is a wonderful writer and her memoir on walking away from, and then returning to church is a great read.

Thoughts on Pope Francis’ Book on the Environment

The Pope Francis hype from a few weeks ago has died down.  Around the time he was visiting my radio channel surfing one day landed me on Rush.  I listened for a few minutes as Rush tried to figure out whether Francis was a Marxist or not.  It was amazing to see that Rush could not figure Francis out.

The reason people like Rush have trouble with the Pope is that they see everything through a Liberal-Conservative, Democrat-Republican lens.  It seems the rhetoric goes that one side is pretty much all right while the other side is all wrong.

I am convinced the reason many of us like the Pope is that he resists this simplistic dichotomy.  Maybe “resists” is the wrong word since, coming from a different culture, he was not raised with it like we in the USA have been.

Of course, the Christian faith does not fit into such a divide either.  As much as we think it does just shows how we have allowed American political discourse to hijack our theology and ethics.

I recently finished Francis’ second encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home.  The Pope spends a lot of time in this book talking about what is wrong with our environment and then goes on to build a strong case for why care of God’s creation should be a central concern for all Christians.  While the environment is the focus of the book, the Pope ties it into other issues such as poverty and life.

Yes, “and life.”  This Pope, like previous popes, is pro-life and pro-traditional family.  I am surprised for the media love affair with this Pope, though part of it is surely that they either ignore or do not notice that he lines up with the tradition of the Church on these issues.  His words on environment and his criticism of capitalism may get applause from one side and anger from the other, but his words on life and family ought to flip the sides applauding and jeering.

Now, I am not a Roman Catholic.  But I have found much to like in the work not just of this Pope, but in the previous two.  Beyond that, there is a depth of spiritual knowledge to be found in the medieval mystics that is beneficial to any Christian.  Whether reading a contemporary Pope or Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross, I find a feast compared to the fast-food produced by much of what qualifies as “Christian living” nowadays.

Further, I am challenged by the Pope and these other writers.  Living in American culture, I feel myself pulled to one side or the other.  I acknowledge the temptation to fall in line, to be a good “liberal” or a good “conservative.”  My honest hope and prayer would be to allow my theology and ethics to be shaped by Jesus, primarily, and by the universal Christian tradition second.  On a day to day basis I may fail, and with another election season ramping up I am praying I fail less.

One practice I will continue, which I hope will keep my soul sane, is to continue to read the classics of Christians long dead.  Right now I am working on the Life of St. Martin of Tours, a man who left the Roman military to become a monk.  I am also reading George MacDonald, a 19th century Scottish preacher who influenced Lewis.  Basically, any Christian work that is not a product of our culture wars is where I find sustenance.

If you want to start this same journey, I can do no better than suggest Pope Francis’ two books: On the Care for Our Common Home and the Joy of the Gospel.

Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson – Dueling Theologians

On Sunday night after leading his Green Bay Packers to victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Aaron Rodgers gave credit to God.  Rodgers said to reporters afterwards: “I think God was a Packers fan tonight, so he was taking care of us.”

There is background here that makes this much more amusing.  Last year the two teams played, with the winner going to the Super Bowl.  The Seahawks won despite a dismal performance from their quarterback Russell Wilson.  Wilson gave credit to God, saying, “”That’s God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special.”

Rodgers responded to Wilson’s words then by saying that while God cares for the people involved, God is not invested in who wins the games.  Clearly though, Rodgers words this past week were a poke in the ribs towards Wilson.

Both Rodgers and Wilson are Christians, and their differing views here point to different ways Christians may deal with suffering.  They are skirting the edges of the debate about freedom vs. determinism.  Some, like Wilson, see God as pulling all the strings.  So for Wilson God not only is praised for strength in order to succeed but God goes further and directly causes the evil and suffering in the world.  Wilson throws four interceptions and loses?  God caused it.  Wilson comes through in the end for the win? God did it?

You have to assume then that this sort of God also directly causes genocides and wars, rapes and murders.  But it is all for the greater good.  As some Christians say, “God has a plan.”  No matter what evil or suffering you encounter, rest assured that it is all part of God’s plan.

Rodgers, on the other hand, recognizes that God does care about everything.  But this care does not go down to micromanaging football games, or directly causing suffering and evil.  God cares about people but how this care works out, the level of freedom God gives, is somewhat a mystery.

Interesting how this theological debate about who God is and how God interacts with the world ends up on a football field.

I for one think Rodgers’ theology is better, more satisfying.  I also respect a good ribbing.

Traveling into Faerie and the Lessons Learned

When I first picked up a copy of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a kid, I was mesmerized.  It was in a church library and I found it much more fascinating that the sermon, so I sat and read it during the church service.

Then came the rest of the Narnia series.  After that was Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  Since then I’ve read some other fantasy literature, some quite good, but nothing that capture my imagination like these stories.

Lewis was greatly influenced by George MacDonald, a pastor and author who lived from 1824-1905.  I recently bought the complete works of MacDonald for the kindle, looking forward to not just diving into his fiction but also into his non-fiction.  Friends of mine who do not read fiction have raved about MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons and other works of theology.

First, I read the work that Lewis cited as baptizing his imagination, Phantastes.  It is the story of a man named Anodos who is taken to the land of Faerie and has many adventures there.  Faerie is the name of the mystical land inhabited by, well, fairies.  But we ought not think of fairies as just the Tinker Bell variety, instead think of Tolkien’s majestic Elves.  Faerie is a world of magic and danger, of giants and goblins and spirits.

It is easy to see the influence Phantastes had on Lewis’ writing.  At the same time, Phantastes is a tougher read then the Narnia books.  I found it kind of weird at times, sort of meandering.  It is the sort of story that a second reading would shed greater light on, for the threads that hold the story together are not clear throughout.  In other words, the story makes you think.  There are many metaphors and imagery that demand further reflection.  And, again unlike Narnia, there is no simple allegory where MacDonald’s Christian faith is obvious.

At the end of the story Anodos returns to his world and is challenged to live with the lessons he learned on his journey through Faerie.  That may be the lesson for the reader.

When we come to these stories, from MacDonald to Lewis and Tolkien and even into more contemporary fantasy, we find ourselves changed.  Not all fantasy does that of course, some of it ends up just being an hour or two of escapism.  But the best fantasy stories lead us into another world, revealing things about our world and ourselves that, when we put the book down, move us.  We do not leave unchanged.

I grew up in the church my whole life.  I knew the stories of Jesus.  But honestly, it was reading the sacrifice of Aslan in Lewis’ work that really, in my childhood mind, helped me grasp what the sacrifice of Jesus truly meant.

As MacDonald has Anados say at the end of the story:

My mind soon grew calm; and I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land? These questions I cannot answer yet. But I fear.

That last phrase strikes me.  What does he fear?  That he will forget the lessons he learned and have to relearn them all?

When we read these stories, and ultimately the story of scripture, may we not come away unchanged. My hope would be that such experiences, such journeys into the written word, would shape us into whole people.

And Then Penn State Lost to Temple…

Last Saturday the Penn State football team did something that has not happened since 1941 – they lost a game to Temple.  Temple?  Really?

I did not watch it, we took the kids to visit my dad and is wife at a campground they were staying at.  Hiking around the woods with the little ones was much more fun than watching that game.

But I checked Twitter and was surprised to see Penn State lose.  Of course, people were shocked.  People were angry.  Other, non-Penn State people thought it was funny.

What very few people mentioned, when talking about Penn State, was that same night the women’s volleyball team began their national title defense.  The women’s volleyball team is a juggernaut; their title last year was their seventh and a few years ago they had a 109 game winning streak.

Of course, the audience for women’s volleyball is quite small.  Football dominates our culture.  College football is basically a minor league for the NFL and the only thing most people know about most universities is in relation to their football teams.  So if a friend of mine from seminary out in Illinois, or a pastor friend who grew up in Columbus, or any local person who just has an irrational hatred for Penn State, gives me a hard time for the loss to Temple, my bringing up our excellence in women’s volleyball does not score me many points.  But as a Penn State alum, I am proud of those ladies and their successes in the name of our school.

I imagine we’re all like this when we think about our roots, where we have come from.  We are all proud of things in ways that outsiders do not care about and may even laugh at.  When I was in Detroit over the summer with a group of students we got a tour from a lifelong resident of the city.  According to her the best pizza place, donut place AND coffee place are all in Detroit.  Her pride for her city was clear, even if we outsiders did not see it.

I attended Penn State for four years then, a few years later, returned to lead the Christian ministry at the Berks campus.  I’ve been hanging around here, talking to students, for a decade now.  That means that fourteen years of my life (2/5) has been spent focusing on Penn State campuses.  Holy cow!

When I think of Penn State then, my first thought does not go to Beaver Stadium and football.  My thoughts go to the students I’ve gotten to know over the years.

 

I think of students who led worship for the first time at CSF and now lead regularly at churches.

I think of students who met at CSF and went on to get married.

I think of students who made faith commitments for the first time, or renewed their commitment as the faith of their parents truly became theirs.

I think of groups of Penn State students traveling throughout the country to bring blessing to places destroyed by hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

I think of playing games and praying, of eating and arguing, of laughing and encouraging.

So yeah, going to a football game is a fun way to spend a Saturday in the fall.  But it is a tiny part of what is going on at Penn State.  Much more is going on on our campus, on all campuses.  The Holy Spirit is working, and will continue to work, not just on this campus but all over the country.  What the football teams do may make the headlines, but what really matters happens every day where there are no cameras and little glamour, but the most long-term affects.

 

Follow University Rules and Things Go Fine

Dealing with university rules can be a pain at times.  Whether you want to have food for an event, bring in a guest speaker, pass out information on your group or just about anything else on campus, there is loads of red tape.

Hoops to jump through.

Forms to sign and date.

It can be a pain.  It can be frustrating.  It can seem like so much waste of time, even to the point where you wonder if the university is just some sort of sadistic monster who enjoys inflicting pain.

But here’s the thing – in most cases if you work your way through all the necessary forms and red tape, the university is helpful and treats everyone fairly.  I can only speak of my experience, working at Penn State Berks for ten years, but in my experience if you do what is expected of you then the university is okay with you doing whatever you want.

This was on my mind because the other day I was driving with my kids and channel surfing on the radio.  I found one conservative commentator who was speaking to a college student and recommended this student go to a few websites to find community with like-minded conservative college students.  Later that day I spent some time perusing one of these sites and the very first article I found was titled:

“YAL Students Confronted While Passing Out Constitutions.”

Ouch, that sounds bad.  An attack on freedom and liberty!  Then I read the subheading and the second bullet point states: “The group is not yet registered with the university.

Well that changes things.  Reading on:

“Hello, I work at the university. Let me just give you the low down about what you’re allowed to do when it comes to ‘solicitation’ on a college campus. This is a public space, but within our confines we are allowed to choose what can be here, and we do that through a process of applying to be in the public space,” the employee said.

After the students conceded that they did not have a form giving them permission to hold their event on campus property, they were told, “there is a system through which you can absolutely do all of this. Absolutely. But you have to go through the university policy.”

When asked if there is a reason that students should need permission to demonstrate on campus, the employee responded, “[y]es, there is. So, anybody from a student organization wants to be out on the ground…It’s known as a reservation. They’re not going to deny you, sir; I guarantee you.”

At this point, the correct thing to do is politely say thank you, walk away and work on becoming a registered student organization.  What the students actually did was refuse to follow the rules and, basically, demand special treatment.

Penn State Berks has “free speech zones.”  If someone wants to come on campus and hand out Bibles (as the Gideons do) or yell at students that they are going to hell (as has been done before) they can do so in a few specific areas.  No one likes being yelled at, but it is allowed.  Why have such zones, someone might ask?  The answer is simply that students need to be kept safe and get to class.  Should people be allowed to stand in the middle of a busy walkway, blocking students from getting to Calculus, so he can yell from his soapbox?

I do  not know if the members of this group that thinks they are being treated unfairly are Christians or not.  But as Christians, it seems clear to me that we ought to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13) and, beyond that, not expect special treatment.  So my advice to these entitled students would be to do what the university requires to become registered and then hand out their constitutions.  There is real persecution in the world, but not getting your way all the time is not it.

The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma (Review)

Honestly, I did not expect much from The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. I had never heard of the author but I picked it up when I saw a few people recommend it on Twitter…and it was free for a few days. After reading some challenging books this summer, from philosophers who hurt my brain to early church writers who make me feel guilty for being rich (compared to most people in the world) I thought this would be a quick read to squeeze in before summer ended.

As I was reading, I found myself becoming more and more interested. This is not just your typical book on how to live as a Christian by a megachurch evangelical pastor (though I honestly have no idea if this pastor is “evangelical” or if the church he is at is “mega”). There is a lot here about living in the paradoxes, accepting God and the Bible for what it is without trying to iron everything out.

What really got me was when he talked about reading books. I found myself being convicted, even feeling guilty, for how I read. I tend to consume books, at times reading through them too fast so I can log another “read” here on goodreads or at least fit into the identity of people who see me as someone who reads a lot of books. In the past I would read, hoping to find the key that would answer all my questions. If I just read enough, or learned enough, than doubt would be vanquished. There is still a bit of that too, so today I often read to solve everything and to consume. Through this I often do find myself challenged (that last book by David Bentley Hart or those works of the early church fathers…wow, I can’t get that stuff out of my head). But I wonder if at times reading books is my idol.

It is ironic then that I wanted to consume this book quickly before summer ended. I work on a college campus, in campus ministry, so around this time of year my time for reading greatly diminishes. Yet in the past I still managed to read a lot, maybe too much. As I read this book I came to a decision that as the school year commences, I am going to intentionally NOT read as much. Of course, I still need to read to prep for teaching (hence that Jeremiah commentary). And I will read for pleasure, because it is fun. But I am going to lay aside the big heavy theological tomes, not because I do not have more to learn (believe me, I do, and there are some books I really want to read) but because I know enough (head-knowledge that is) to minister on campus. When I read it will be for teaching prep, spiritual development (yeah, I can’t get away from the church fathers) or for fun (hello biography of Napolean!). I also hope this will lead to more time for journaling, meditation and the like.

So overall, I recommend this book. I can see it being greatly helpful for college students so I will recommend it to them. I could see it being helpful to any Christian. Thanks Ken for a great book.

Explaining College Ministry to a Four Year Old

11951486_10153969197071564_3944124659357816490_o“Daddy, why are you giving bags to the students?”

We were driving home from campus earlier tonight when Junia asked me this question.  Last Friday we had gone to a church to help put items into care packages for the PSU Berks students.  Junia excelled at this, marching through the assembly line and filling each bag with soda, ramen, granola bars, crackers, markers and tablets.  Then today she went with me as we transported hundreds of these gift bags from the drop site (another church) to campus.  In the midst of large men carrying anywhere from four to ten bags at once, Junia consistently carried her two, making sure to work hard and do her part.

Unfortunately it was getting late for her, so I took her home before we actually got to hand them out.  Then she asked me why we do it.  As I thought about how to answer, anticipating other questions she might ask, I realized how difficult it is to explain these sorts of things to a child.

“Well sweetheart, Daddy works with the college students, you know that right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, my job is to help the students learn more about Jesus and God.  We want the students to know that God loves them so one way we do this is giving them a bag of free goodies.”

“How does giving them a bag show them that?”

“Well, you know how when you love someone you sometimes give them a present, like at Christmas?  One way we show we care about other people is by giving them presents.  So we give them gift bags to show them we care about them and to help them know God cares about them and loves them.  Does that make sense?”

“Yes.”

“And you know what, when you go to college it is probably the first time you have lived away from home.  A lot of the students have lived with their mommies and daddies their whole lives.  Moving away from home can be scary, some of the students may be missing their families and friends.  We want to make them feel welcome at Penn State Berks, to help them know people out there care for them.  What do you think of that?”

“I think its nice!”

So there you go.  That’s why we do it, reduced to a way a four year old can understand.

By the time I got back to campus from dropping her off, the students were already handing them out.  As it is every year, it was a wonderful time.  Many students expressed gratitude and joy at receiving these bags, some were even shocked to get something for free.  Our prayer of course is that these bags remind the students that lots of people out there care about them and beyond that, that God cares for them.