Thursday, May 26, 2016

a simple path to joy (part 3): faith for the bend in the road

In the first two posts of this series, I've suggested that true joy comes when we face life honestly and cultivate gratitude for what we have and where we are. These choices get us through the gate and onto joy's path, and they help us navigate each intersection.

The third choice on the pathway to joy comes when we reach a bend in the road. It's a fact of life that we can't see what's ahead. But joy does not depend on knowing what comes next or being able to control it.  True joy cannot be seized or managed.  We don't get there by straining harder, but rather by releasing our hold on what we cannot control anyway. Christian joy comes when we recognize our own helplessness. That is, it comes through faith -- faith rooted in the reality of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and in what he promises to do for all creation. We await the renewal of all things. We believe it is coming. Trouble may lurk around the next bend, but the pain, sorrow, and madness of this world is not final. It is merely a symptom of our world's brokenness and need for restoration. That restoration has been promised by the God who created all things. We can count on it. And it has already begun to take effect with the resurrection of Jesus. 

The story of Jesus is powerful precisely because when he became human he entered fully into the mess and the brokenness of this world. But his life was fully surrendered to God the Father and therefore fully energized by the Holy Spirit. His mastery of being human, his perfection, is more than just a model for us to follow (though it is that). It's what qualified him to break the power of sin and death by offering himself in our place. He took the punishment we deserved. He died our death, so that we could truly live.

The New Testament calls joy a fruit — one of the character qualities that naturally arises from a life energized by the Holy Spirit. This, too, suggests that joy comes not by straining, but by surrender, not by trying, but by trust in the transforming power of God. That power is made available to us in Jesus Christ. A gift to each of us who surrenders. We can walk in this joyful reality by facing our brokenness with honesty, embracing our present with gratitude, and responding in faith to life's uncertainties. We may not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future. And that makes all the difference.

Now for a word of warning. The pathway to joy is not a path we walk only once. Honesty, gratitude, and faith are not quick fixes for joy. They must become habits. We must continue to face life with honesty, to receive our circumstances with gratitude, and to embrace the future with faith. As one Bible scholar puts it, "Like muscles, the capacity for joy atrophies if we do not use it regularly. Those who wait for some great occasion for joy and gratitude to God are not likely to recognize it when it happens." (Ellen Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, 221; quoted in James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for our Time, 114). We begin practicing honesty, gratitude and faith right here, with whatever we're facing.

Paul was among the early Christians who traveled around the Roman world to spread the news about Jesus' resurrection from the dead. He had some utterly strange things to say about joy:

In his letter to the church in Corinth he said, "In all our troubles my joy knows no bounds." (2 Corinthians 7:4) He spoke of others who had "overflowing joy" "in the midst of a very severe trial (2 Corinthians 8:2). And Paul was not alone in noticing that joy and trials often went hand-in-hand. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds." (James 1:2) Pure joy? When facing trials? Why? He goes on to say, "because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." (James 1:4) James is saying we ought to be grateful for the effects of those trials on our character. Through the eyes of faith, we know that hard times help us to grow in important ways -- provided we respond with open hands and open hearts. That brings pure joy.

We no longer need to worry about what's ahead. If something good happens, we can celebrate. If we face difficult times, we can be glad for what those experiences will do in us so that we can become who we were meant to be. We win either way! That frees us to face our present situation honestly and receive it with gratitude.

Paul discovered this. He wrote, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:11–13)

And so can you!

Monday, May 23, 2016

a simple path to joy (part 2): the intersection of gratitude

In my first post in this series, I claimed that true joy is impossible to find when we are living in denial. We begin our journey to joy by facing life's messes head on and choosing to be honest. That's how we enter the gateway on the path to joy.

Next we come to an intersection, and we have to make our second choice: gratitude. We cannot be everything we might have been, have everything that can be had, go everywhere there is to go. We can only be and do and have this. Once we have faced our disappointments with brutal honesty, we are free to move on with gratitude for what our life actually holds.

Our world is full of constant reminders of what we don't have. Ads surround us incessantly, telling us all day long about the products and services that will make life easier, or sweeter, or more successful. But joy depends not on what we have but on our disposition towards what we have. The Greek philosopher Epicurus warned, "Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not." Put another way, "Happy is the woman who wants what she has." In fact, sometimes we uncover joy by having less, by simplifying our lives -- clearing out our closets and giving things away. Every item we own gets a piece of our care and attention until we have no energy left to care for the things that really matter. It is freeing to declutter, to downsize, to keep only what we actively use.

But this intersection on the pathway to joy isn't only about what we have. It's also about where we are and who we've become. There are more possibilities in life than we have time to try, more opportunities than we can pursue. When we cultivate the habit of thankfulness, our hearts are positioned for joy. We cannot take every path, but we did take this one. To spend our time wondering about all the other paths we could have taken robs us of joy. I am not an astronaut. I am not a midwife. I am not a famous singer. I am not a jungle missionary. I am not even one of those amazing stay-at-home moms who actively volunteers at the elementary school and whose kids have really creative birthday parties every year. Saying 'yes' to one path has meant saying 'no' to others.

About a year ago we realized that I would probably never finish my doctoral degree unless I started to say 'no' to good opportunities. I resolved not to say 'yes' to anything but family until I was finished. At first it was painfully difficult. The things I was asked to do were right up my alley. They were things that would energize me. Ways to plug into my church and my community for which I was uniquely suited -- lead a small group, speak in chapel, teach a college class. But after half a dozen difficult 'no's' my schedule was completely open for the task I dreaded -- revising my dissertation. And I discovered that when I had complete focus, I did much better work and enjoyed it far more than before! I relished the gift of concentration. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we try to do it all or have it all, or spend our energy wondering what would have happened or what could have been. Those things are not. This is what is. Here is where we are. So let's embrace it and move forward with gratitude. 

This is a sure way to begin to find joy. But what about the uncertainties ahead? In my next post, I'll talk about what to do when we can't see around the bend in the road.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

a simple path to joy (part 1): the gateway to honesty

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the May Festival at Evangelical Bible Church in Dallas, Oregon. My assigned topic was "Joy in Simplicity." Here's a glimpse of what I shared:


How do we find joy? Joy is not automatic. A life free from trouble is no guarantee of joy, and a difficult life does not prevent it.

From 2002 to 2005 we lived in the Philippines. In spite of widespread government corruption, crippling poverty, oppressive heat, and high unemployment, we found Filipinos to be some of the happiest people we've ever met. They can fall asleep anywhere, turn a 1-year-old's birthday into a wedding-sized celebration, and laugh in the face of trouble. They are among the poorest in Asia, but arguably the happiest. Clearly, joy does not depend on circumstances. So how do we get there?

If we imagine a pathway to joy, forward movement depends on three deliberate choices. (There may be others; I'm addressing three here.) The first comes at a gateway, the second at an intersection, and the third at a bend in the road. To enter the gateway we need to choose honesty. To navigate the intersection we must choose gratitude. And to lend perspective for the bends in the path, we need faith.

We make the first deliberate choice at the gateway of honesty. We will never arrive at true joy by pretending to be happy. Denial is the enemy of joy —a closed door to joy's garden path. We cannot bypass grief and pain, guilt or unforgiveness and expect to find joy. That thing that robs us of joy must be faced head on. We must look it in the eye and name it.

In fact, psychologists tell us that when we avoid honesty, we invite poor health, both emotionally and physically. In the words of one scholar who has studied this phenomenon (Brent Strawn, on James Pennebaker's study, in Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, xix), "Inhibition is hard work, and that work eventually takes its toll on the body's defenses." So you want real joy? Step one is to grieve your losses. Admit your fault. Express your anger. Own your failures. Voice your disappointment. Forgive those who have let you down.

This is a bit awkward to say in church. Most churches have lost the art of making space for this kind of honesty. We give the distinct impression that "putting on your Sunday best" always includes a bright smile. We rarely confess our sins, name our failures, face our fears, and grieve our losses in community. And so our unexpressed emotions become roadblocks to joy. One way to recover these practices is to pray the Psalms together. The Psalms let it all hang out. Every ugly emotion you can imagine.  It's like reality TV, minus the TV.

God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer! By night, but I find no rest! (22:2)
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help! (22:11)
Break the arm of the wicked man; call the evildoer to account for his wickedness (10:15)
All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears (6:6)
Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? (6:2-3)
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. (51:4)
Troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see (40:12)
Let evil recoil on those who slander me; in your faithfulness destroy them (54:5)

Through prayer, all these raw and gritty realities are brought into the presence of God and given over for Him to handle. The Psalms are proof that God invites us to come as we are. To say it like it is. And by doing so, to find a new way forward. There's no way around it.

So we begin our journey to joy by choosing to be honest.

Then we come to an intersection, and we have to make our second choice: gratitude. I'll talk about that intersection in my next post on joy. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

prostitutes, polygamy, and other gnarly things in the Old Testament

The Old Testament is full of fodder for questions. Gnarly questions about violence and sexual deviancy and deception and war. Every year new books are released that try to wrestle with these questions from a Christian point of view. Here are a few examples from recent years, most of them focused on violence in the Old Testament:

Last year David Lamb added a second book of his own to this collection: Prostitutes and Polygamists: A Look at Love, Old Testament Style (Zondervan, 2015). I was asked to review it for Themelios, the digital journal of The Gospel Coalition. My review went live yesterday.

I hesitated to accept. The book struck me as edgy and irreverently playful on a subject matter that deserves steady and non-sensational reflection. Frankly, I didn't seem to fit the target audience. But the editor had reasons to ask me (my gender, my cross-cultural experience, and my background in Old Testament ethics), so in the end I agreed to write a review. You can read it here. You might find it to be just the thing for the college group at your church, but I hope my review will help guide your group discussions in order to avoid some of the potential pitfalls of Lamb's approach.

While I have your attention, I'll put in a plug for two books I like better. Wright's book, listed first above, is an outstanding yet accessible introduction to tough issues involving suffering and evil, the Canaanites, the cross, and the end of the world. (His more scholarly tome, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, is also well worth reading, if your attention span can last nearly 500 pages.) Paul Copan's book, listed second above, comes highly recommended as well. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I find his approach much more satisfying than Lamb's.

If you're wrestling with some of these tough questions, please know that there are answers. From our vantage point we may never be fully satisfied with the ways that the Old Testament narrates the story of Israel's faith. It's too foreign and too far in the distant past to make perfect sense to us. But if we apply ourselves diligently to the text of Scripture and broaden our understanding of its ancient context, we can come a long way toward making sense of the Old Testament. It's a journey worth making!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

now what? (and other questions): life after dissertation

It's the inevitable question that follows the celebratory congratulations. Since I've been blessed with a wide-ranging support network, it's a question I'm asked just about every day by people who care.

So, yes, it feels amazing to be (almost) done!
Yes, it's a huge load off our shoulders, and the whole family is relieved.
Yes, I have a bit more freedom and flexibility now.

But no, I will not have a lot more free time. Here's why:

A Ph.D. is not the type of degree people earn for personal enrichment. As a matter of stewardship, the huge investment of time, mentoring, and other resources are designed to prepare the student for a lifetime of scholarship. Career-wise, like most of my colleagues, my hope is to be a college professor. I have already begun teaching at two schools, George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, and Multnomah University in Portland. I love what I do. I'm very grateful for open doors. However, these "jobs" are a bit like being a "temp" worker (minus the agency). They pay very little (last spring my pay worked out to about $5/hour), with no benefits, and no guarantee of employment beyond the current semester. Semester by semester, each school will let me know if they need me to teach for them again. So while I love my work, I do not actually have a job yet.

In order to get a permanent position, I must demonstrate that I will be a contributing member of the campus as well as the scholarly community by staying abreast of current research, participating in campus events, investing in students outside of class, and achieving excellence in teaching (as measured by student evaluations). Diploma aside, without several scholarly publications and stellar teaching evaluations, no school is likely to consider hiring me. In today's educational environment, very few schools are hiring permanent ("tenure-track") faculty. Schools that do post positions are flooded with qualified applicants. To walk away from the library now would spell the end of my career.

Getting a PhD is a bit like becoming an MD. Your medical doctor did not stop studying when she graduated from medical school (thank goodness!). She reads medical journals, attends medical conferences, and even collaborates with other doctors to ensure quality care and accurate diagnoses for patients. Likewise, I cannot stop studying and writing. A professor who ceases to learn, ceases to teach.

And so my days are still full. These days I'm revising my dissertation (almost done!), prepping for class, grading student papers, and preparing for upcoming gigs:

In May I'll be presenting a paper at an academic meeting in Idaho (Northwest Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature) and serving as a respondent for a colleague's paper.
In June I'll be teaching a one-week intensive course on the Old Testament Prophets at Multnomah University.
In July I'll be filming brief lectures for an online course on the Prophets at Multnomah, to be offered beginning in October.
In late August I'll begin teaching 2 new courses on campus at George Fox (Exodus and Psalms) and another section of Prophets at Multnomah.

On top of this are the opportunities to invest in the church—speaking at a women's event in May in Dallas, Oregon, helping with VBS, and speaking at a women's retreat in September in Wisconsin—as well as finding a publisher for my dissertation and beginning work on my next research project.

All of these great opportunities require long, quiet, focused hours of preparation. Studying the Word, crafting a message or a lecture, preparing visual aids, and coordinating logistics. In fact, with 4 classes this fall (3 on two campuses and one online), I'll be teaching the equivalent of a full-time load. I expect to be just as busy as ever. But I'm not complaining.

That was the whole point of all this schooling.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded;
and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
(Luke 12:48 NIV)
Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 
(1 Corinthians 4:2 NIV) 
At the end of the race, may I be found faithful!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

lasting impressions and do-overs

Is it possible to retire from retirement? Last week my grandparents moved from their retirement home in the mountains to a retirement facility just one block away from my childhood home. This time it's for real -- downsizing, purging, relinquishing memories and positioning themselves closer to medical care, meals, and household assistance.

This move to Denver brings my grandparents back into the orbit of those who made such a mark on my childhood. Men and women who filled the pews on Sunday morning, and whose names filled the address book we kept by the phone. Our perpetual problem was that address books never allowed enough pages for the letter "V": VanderVeen, Vermeer, Veenstra, Verstraate, VanderHorst, VanHeukelem, Van Stelle, Vander Ploeg, Van Dusseldorp, and on it went. We managed to surround ourselves almost entirely with other Dutch families -- our Christian Reformed Church, the Christian school started by CRC families where my brother and I attended, the businesses run by CRC families, and even Dutch neighbors who, like us, had settled close to all these things.

We lived just 4 doors down from Third CRC. Stepping out the front door in the morning, we could see the brick corner of the church, with windows to the nursery where we began our childhood (and the mural our mom painted of Noah's Ark), the library where we filled our arms with Christian books, Sunday school rooms, and the consistory room where Dad participate in deacon's meetings and where I sat nervously at the big oval council table, being interviewed by a dozen men in suits before my public profession of faith. Now the men and women who used to shake our hands and pat our heads shuffle down hallways one block to the East, in that brick building that was once new, heading to meals, their frames bent and their skin too loose. Among them is our pastor from so long ago. My grandparents are their newest neighbors.

I remember Reverend Kok as tall and broad, with a booming voice. I knocked on his door once, hands trembling and gasping for breath. I had run to the parsonage with an urgent confession. While playing in the church yard mid-week, as we often did, I had broken a basement window. Looking back, I would like to give Reverend Kok a "do-over." What he ought to have said was, "Don't be afraid, Carmen. It can be fixed. It took a lot of courage to come tell me the truth. Thank you for your honesty. Well done. This mistake doesn't define you, your integrity does." What he really said was, "I hope you have plenty of money in your piggy bank." This terrified me. He didn't intend to be mean, but by the time my 10 year old feet had pounded the pavement all the way to my house almost a block away, I was a mess. The tears burst and I blubbered my confession to Dad, who told me not to worry. He could fix it, and I didn't need to pay for it. After that we didn't skateboard on the wheelchair ramp any more.

Two other memories of Reverend Kok cast him in a different light. The first showed his insecurity, perhaps. I don't remember the context of his sermon, but I remember him suggesting that none of us young people would want to become pastors when we grew up. It was almost a rhetorical question, I think. "None of you wants to be like me when you grow up. (Right?)" He meant that we probably didn't want to go into pastoral ministry. Unbidden, and without any hesitation an unspoken response welled up inside me. "Oh, but I do!" I'm not sure that I thought it was actually possible. After all, I was a little girl, not a little boy, so pastoral ministry was not an option. But I couldn't think of anything more wonderful to do with my life. Reverend Kok represented the pinnacle of vocational excellence to me. I'll never forget his angst the Sunday after televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was caught with a prostitute (mostly I remember it because he said the word "butt" from the pulpit, as in, "today we [Christians] are the butt of every joke." I still feel the shock of hearing that, almost 30 years later.).

But my favorite memory begins one Sunday morning when I was distracted during the sermon, studying the maps in the back of the pew Bibles, because they were the only pictures available. It was a New Testament map that grabbed my attention -- a New Testament map that included the city of Jericho. My little brain couldn't quite wrap itself around that one. Didn't the walls fall down? Wasn't it destroyed? At the end of the service all the grown ups filed out of the sanctuary, shaking Rev Kok's hand. I carried the pew Bible along with me, open to the map, and planted myself right beside him. Craning my little neck (I told you he was tall!), I asked if I could ask him a question. His attention divided, he kept shaking hands and nodding at folks while he listened to my question about Jericho. Then he gave me an answer I didn't expect. "I don't know, but I'll try to find out."

The next Sunday I waited impatiently until the end of the sermon. I filed out with everyone else and planted myself beside him again, intensely curious. When there were no more hands to shake he turned to me. "Well, I looked at a book on Jericho this big [here he held out a bent finger and thumb probably 3 inches apart, thoroughly impressing me], and here's what I learned. After Jericho was destroyed, it wasn't supposed to be rebuilt, but somebody did it anyway. He lost both of his sons for disobeying God, but the city has been there ever since." (See 1 Kings 16:34 for the story)

I went away with a full heart and a dawning appreciation for biblical scholarship. Rev. Kok had taken me seriously. My questions mattered. And they had answers. There were books full of them.

I wonder how instrumental that conversation was in setting me on the trajectory that led me to Wheaton. My insatiable fascination with the Bible has only grown with time. What if Rev. Kok had waved me aside and told me my question was silly? Where would I be?

My Dad spoke with Rev. Kok last week, when my grandparents were signing papers on their new apartment. Rev. Kok wanted to know if I was still a good Calvinist. (I've forgiven Dad for lying in response, as he was answering the more important question that Rev. Kok ought to have asked.) I'd like to give Rev. Kok a do-over when I make it to Denver to see my grandparents in their new home. I'd like to hear him ask, "Do you still love Jesus? Are you walking faithfully with him?" For that, my answer is a resounding "YES!"

Monday, April 4, 2016

learning how to celebrate

Eat, drink, and be merry, says Qohelet.*
And yet—
I have spent a lifetime avoiding excess, choosing moderation, working weekends, and feeling guilty when I'm unproductive.
Qohelet would have words with me.

It's not that our work doesn't matter, but he urges us to slow down, to stop taking ourselves so seriously, to spend time enjoying the fruits of our labor.
Eat, drink, and be merry.
Celebrate together.
Don't store it all up for "Someday." You may die before you can enjoy what you've earned.

This is not what I expected.
I would rather hear him say, "Give it away. Be generous with those in need. Save for the future." (Other parts of the Bible say these things. And we should listen to them, too. I'm most comfortable with these parts.)
But Qohelet says, Loosen your belt buckle and eat another helping of dessert. 
Relish what God has given.
Work—this, too, is a gift.

Do what you love and love what you do. But then stop and play. Work isn't everything.

Recognize that God has things in hand. He's in charge. You are not.
Rest in that.

Life won't always make sense. It will feel like things go round and round without progress, or those who don't deserve it get the lucky break and those who do lose everything. But don't panic.
As meaningless as it seems, God hasn't stopped ruling the world. He'll work it out eventually.
In the meantime, work, love, and . . . party.
No need to be more pious than God. He wants you to accept His gifts.

For this Dutch girl, the whole thing sounds suspicious, like a coupon that will turn out to be expired once I've driven across town and stood in line for 20 minutes ("I knew it was too good to be true"). Or like an advertisement for a beach house that looks much better on screen than in person ("You get what you pay for.").

Is this a trap? or a test of my motives? Is celebration a slippery slope that will land me in a self-indulgent mess?

I decide that frugality, taken to an extreme, is a failure to demonstrate gratitude for what God has provided. I must learn to think differently, enlarging my capacity for celebration.

I start small. We're on a date—the first in months—and I order Duck Curry instead of the usual chicken. The extra $2 tastes delicious.

Then I head to Wheaton for my dissertation defense. The weekend goes so incredibly well that I know it's just the sort of occasion Qohelet is talking about—a time to celebrate. At a dinner with friends I stay up late and "taste my first champagne" (not bad, actually!). But the real surprise, the real opportunity to test drive Qohelet's philosophy comes when I arrive home.

It's midnight, thanks to a delayed flight out of Chicago, and I am exhausted. But as we pull up to the house my jaw drops. Parked in the driveway with an enormous red bow is a car, a new car, just for me!

We'd been talking about "Someday," that time when I have a full-time job with a real salary and we can afford a newer car for my commute. But it appears that my parents have been reading Ecclesiastes, too. They felt that it was time to celebrate—that someday was now. And so they dug deep and orchestrated a surprise I will never forget. Though this extravagance cost me nothing, it will be a daily reminder of God's lavish love for me, a love  not limited by "what's on sale" or "what's practical."

He's teaching this Dutch girl how to celebrate.


*Qohelet is the name some scholars use to refer to the "Teacher" in Ecclesiastes, since it's hard to know exactly what the translation would be. It's simply his Hebrew title rendered in English letters.