Joy to the World*

First, I would like to thank the ETBU Center for Excellence in Christian Scholarship for allowing me to take part in blogging this semester. It has been an excellent experience and I hope that this particular project continues long-enough that I eventually have another shot at it. In particular, I’d like to thank Elizabeth Ponder for keeping us all in-line.

For weeks I had roughly sketched out that this final week I would write about missed opportunities and unanswered prayers, noting ETBU’s focus verse for this year (Proverbs 3:5-6). I was going to talk about several instances of my life in which I had reeeeeeally wanted something and it did not work out, but in the end it was a blessing: jobs I didn’t get that were downsized within the year, opportunities that I was sure were “the big break” that didn’t happen but were replaced by something better, relationships that (thankfully) did not pan out…

But something else is weighing on me: “My trouble is Christmas.”

“You know, Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho.”

***Disclaimer: If you are under the age of 10 or so, there is a MAJOR spoiler in today’s post so you probably won’t want to read it.***

Reader, I have questions you need to consider:

What are you going to tell (or what do or did you tell) your kids about Santa Claus? How will/do/did you answer these questions?

  • Who is he?
  • What does he do? How does he get into the house?
  • Is he white or black or Hispanic or what?
  • (At the mall) “Mommy/Daddy, is that the real Santa?”
  • What about Rudolph, Frosty, Jack Frost and all of the other peripheral characters?

“WHAT KIND OF CHRISTMAS MUSIC IS THAT?!”

So anyways, I attended the Texas Lions Camp in Kerrville, TX several summers as a pre-teen and teenage Type I diabetic. The first couple of times I attended, the camp was long-enough that it ran through Sundays, and I remember one Sunday in particular that has stuck with me a long time.

There was an optional “Sunday service” I attended, and even as a youth I recognized that something was wrong about it. It was like expecting Dr. Pepper and getting watered down Mr. Pibb. There was no specific talk of God, no prayers (just something like “silent reflection”), and no songs…except one. The only reason I stayed for the entire service was that on the program, for some odd reason, there was Joy to the World. I thought, “how ridiculous…a Christmas song in July. But at least it is Christian.” We got to that point, and with all of my pent up frustration, as soon as I started loudly blurting “JOY TO THE WORLD, THE LORD IS…”

“JEREMIAH WAS A BULLFROG! HE WAS A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE!”

That’s right…it wasn’t “Christmas song” Joy to the World blaring loudly through the speakers, it was Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World (I don’t remember having ever heard that song before in my life to that point, but I probably had).

In hindsight, adult me knows that the Texas Lions Camp could not quite offer a “Christian worship service”, but why fake one if it isn’t going to be the real thing? I mean, good grief! The song talks about drinking wine and “making sweet love to you”. Many of us hadn’t hit puberty yet, so what were we meant to be worshipping?! (And furthermore, who thought “this is a great idea!”)

Despite probably being well-intentioned, the “Sunday Service” did nothing to center worship on God. Instead, it distracted from those things that were important.

(I don’t recall there ever being another “Sunday Service” in my subsequent years at the camp, but that might be because the camps shortened to not overlap on Sundays, they stopped doing them, or I simply repressed ever seeing that option offered again.)

“All I want is what I… I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”

I take those earlier questions about Santa Claus and use them in my M.Ed. coaching class. I present them as if I am asking out of context for student opinions on how I should proceed with my own kids, and then I move on to a thorough discussion of what sorts of ethical restraints they might have in Pee-Wee coaching versus professional coaching. This leads to a discussion on moral relativism versus moral absolutism (“Why do you have significant differences between what you think is acceptable for Pee-Wee versus pros?”). Then I ask these two questions:

Question #1: Was Robin Hood a good guy or a bad guy? Was he right or wrong?

(and then I nail them with the next transition…)

Question #2: Why is OK to lie to your kids about Santa Claus? How can you then expect them to believe some of the more-important things you say?

Now to you, the reader…why DO we lie to kids about Santa Claus? That is what we do. Really, think about it. What good reason is there to lie to your kids about the existence of Santa Claus? We expect kids to believe that a red-coated fat man at the North Pole delivers toys to children around the world in one night on a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer, and that’s before you get into the entire backstory of Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, Elf on a Shelf, Yukon Cornelius, the Island of Misfit Toys, and the whole variety of other characters that have been somehow equated with a Christmas story. Eventually, they find out it isn’t true and there is a level of trust that is violated. “But Will, it is innocent and there is no harm done.” Is that true?

“Let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”

Now before you label me a Grinch, I recognize that my complaint isn’t a new one. The entire point of the original Charlie Brown Christmas special was that commercialism and secularism should not take the focus away from Jesus on Christmas, and that show was released in 1965 (nearly fifty full year ago!). That said, I wonder how Charles Shultz would feel about this sort of thing happening with his creations?

Week15 Snoopy Christmas Airplane

In fairness, my kids currently do receive one gift from Santa each year, if for no other thing than them having an answer when someone asks “what did Santa Claus bring you?” This concession was the result of much deliberation in my household. I believe that we should give each other gifts, as a commemoration of the gifts the wise men are said to have given baby Jesus. However, I also believe that we should not extort behavior from our kids (by proxy of a fictional character) by saying things like: “you might get that toy, but you’ll have to hope Santa thinks you are a good-enough boy/girl to deserve it.” It should be emphasized that gifts are given at Christmas out of love to commemorate the birth of Christ. Period.

“What kind of a tree is that?”

Week15 Star and Crescent Tree TopperThis is for sell at our local “big box” store: star and crescent tree toppers.

I consulted several individuals much-more qualified than me to speak to this, and there was no consensus on the intention, but all agreed that the star and crescent is most-definitely a non-Christian religious symbol. Some I consulted noted that people buying it might not be aware of what it represents to certain groups, and this is probably the truth. I just want to point out that this is a product that exists. Is Christmas now so secular of a holiday now that families with those belief systems do not feel threatened celebrating it in their households? I doubt that, but one must admit that this could be evidence to the contrary. At the minimum, this may show the cultural ignorance of those that purchase the tree topper, unaware of its meaning to billions of people.

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

When we lie to our kids about this entire fantastical “Christmas character” alternate universe, they will eventually find out it isn’t true. If we as parents and as society are willing to lie to our children about that, should it surprise us that when they are older they don’t believe us when we tell them that 2000 years ago, a baby was born in a manger under fantastical circumstances, that the carpenter’s son went on to perform supernatural miracles, that was He was the Son of God, that He died for our sins, and that He rose from the dead on the third day? Because really, “That’s what Christmas is all about.”

Luke 2: 8-14

8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes , lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying , 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Thank you for reading this semester.

WW

Jesus, Africa, Refugees, and a Retelling of the Christmas Narrative

As you reflect on the Christmas story do you celebrate and affirm its connection to Africa and refugees?

Photo Credit: withrow via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: withrow via Compfight cc

Each semester in “Introduction to the New Testament” I ask students to corporately retell the Christmas story.  Working together students generally note many of the more commonly known elements: the inn and its lack of room, angels, shepherds, wise men and a brilliant star.

Most semesters, however, students neglect the tyrannical attack unleashed on the town of Bethlehem by Herod that would rightly be labeled today as genocide or more accurately – infanticide.  This seems to speak to a collective desire in many western cultures to minimize atrocity.  This is unsurprising given the response of many to the recent influx of 50,000 Central American unaccompanied minors to the United States who are primarily fleeing a context filled with gangs, drugs, rape and violence.  This further corresponds to a general lack of media attention to the more than 1 million Syrian child refugees fleeing from war who even now face the onset of winter.  It is perhaps easier and safer to avoid drawing a direct connection between one of the most celebrated biblical narratives to these and other similar realities.

Most semesters students also fail to include the journey to Egypt.  Matthew 2:13-15:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Throughout the Old and New Testament the Jewish people looked to Egypt as a place of safety and refuge.  Africa has long played an important, though often undervalued, role in the broader history and development of biblical faith.

How long did the “holy family” stay in Egypt?  The Bible is unclear but it is safe to assume that the first few years of Jesus’ life were spent in Africa.

Where did they go when they arrived in Egypt?  The text is unclear but there was a sizable Jewish immigrant population in Alexandria so perhaps they relocated to northern Egypt.

How did Joseph and Mary feed Jesus and reconstitute their home in a new country?  Again, the text is unclear but two assumptions are probable.  First, there were surely individuals who helped them along the way and so entertained unaware the Son of God.  Second, it is possible that Joseph and Mary used the gifts from the Magi to help them in this difficult process.

What is clear is that the holy family had to flee for their lives from a deranged governmental system and they found safety and security in the arms of Africa.

It is not possible to know the kinds of interactions, if any, Jesus had with people around him while an infant in Egypt.  But it is reasonable to assume that Alexandria was filled with business interactions and cultural exchanges between the immigrant Jewish population, local Egyptians, people from the broader Roman world and Sub-Saharan Africans navigating the Nile, the life blood of the region.  Certainly this impacted the development of Joseph and Mary who may have later recounted to Jesus how they were saved and lived at that time.  We cannot know the influence of Africa on Joseph, Mary and Jesus but it is reasonable to assume that it significantly impacted this family.

Moreover, part of the reason why this text is compelling is because it so clearly states that Jesus was at one point a refugee.  At Christmas we celebrate many titles for Jesus – Messiah, Immanuel, Christ, Prince of Peace, Son of God – and these are all powerful and true names.  But Jesus is also the refugee, the one forced to flee his home, the politically betrayed and abandoned one, scared and fleeing in the night, nervous at the border, wondering how life will go on.  Jesus, Joseph and Mary were all refugees.

We do not often celebrate Jesus the refugee.  What would it mean this Christmas for churches to affirm that Jesus was a refugee protected by Africa?

Reflecting on this passage the Africa Bible Commentary notes:

The fact that Jesus was a refugee on African soil should teach us many lessons.  God was not ashamed to let his son become a refugee.  By sharing the plight of stateless refugees, Jesus honoured all those who suffer homelessness on account of war, famine, persecution or some other disaster.  There are millions of refugees on the African continent and many of them have a terrible life…  The sad thing is that far too many Christians are either unconcerned or believe the lie that every refugee is a troublemaker.  Yet the Bible is full of men and women who knew what it meant to be refugee.

Jesus as refugee is good news to many this Christmas season.  We can turn to those experiencing true difficulty and say, “God has not abandoned you.”  Jesus is one who understands as one without home, without wealth, at one point even without a country.  The Gospel is good news to the broken and the suffering in this world.

Photo Credit: 10b travelling via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: 10b travelling via Compfight cc

Jesus as refugee is also a challenge to Christians this Christmas season.  If Jesus was a refugee today would the church welcome him or miss him altogether?  If was Jesus was a refugee, might we find the Spirit of God still at work in refugees today?  If Jesus was a refugee, might we also have a responsibility to help others who find themselves in such a situation?

If the church is unwilling to help refugees then who will?  If the church is unwilling to step into this difficult kind of situation and offer the love of Jesus then where is the hope of the Christmas season?  The church must be willing to step into the most difficult, most broken, most challenging spaces because the light of Jesus shines brightest in the darkest of contexts.  We must train and mobilize our churches to be politically and consciously aware of this biblical mandate.

According to recent statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there are approximately 43.3 million refugees worldwide today.  Jesus was a refugee.

41% of the refugees are children.  Jesus was a refugee child.

26% of all refugees are in Africa.  Jesus was a refugee in Africa.

There are also likely refugees in your community some who may be recently resettled.  Would you consider searching out a resettlement agency in your area and partnering with them this Christmas season?

Each Christmas we worship, though we may not always state it clearly, the refugee Jesus.  This season let us acknowledge and affirm the special connection shared between Jesus and our brothers and sisters from Africa.  This season let us also pray, minister and befriend those with whom Jesus specifically identified: refugees.

EMB

Basketball Jones

The week before any prolonged university break (Thanksgiving, Spring Break, etc.) is a difficult one. Everyone’s focus, including the professors’, tends to wane. In an effort to ensure students attend the days prior to a break, a variety of motivational tools must be used. In one of my classes this Fall, I gave a test. In the other three, I had to get creative:

“And if you guys come to class Thursday (or Friday) maybe we’ll watch a movie? Or maybe I’ll tell you some old story or otherwise embarrass myself in some way? Or maybe, just maybe, all I just said was a lie and it will be a normal class day? Whooo knoooows?!” (Imagine all of that being said with over-the-top, exaggerated hand gestures and inflections.)

Sometimes I just tease my students, but sometimes, I deliver.

What I had for those Thursday and Friday attendees this year were a variety of VHS tapes of my various basketball experiences, ranging from (briefly) a Pee-Wee game in 3rd grade, some Junior High and High School games, an intramural game at ETBU (team name: Hoosier Daddy), and head coaching in an ETBU JV game. The Pee-Wee game in particular was a huge hit.

Basketball has been an important part of my life. My father was a women’s sports (including basketball) coach for 35+ years and was an all-state performer at Avinger. There even exists an 8mm film of his Avinger team besting a Harleton team with a future NBA center in the state playoffs, during a snowstorm, in ETBU’s own Keys Gym. My mother was a successful “guards and forwards” player, my older brother was 3rd team all-state, I grew up in Avinger, Texas, where there wasn’t much else to do…the stars were aligned. However, a few things happened:

  1. I didn’t really like it until after I was diagnosed with Type-I diabetes at 11, and so I was already behind my peers.
  2. By the time I really started liking it and started figuring out how to best work basketball around the diabetes, I stopped growing. I was 5’10” in 8th grade and stopped growing by the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, topping out at my current 5’10¾”. Of note, my Dad is about 6’1, my older brother is 6’2”, and my younger brother is 6’6”…until 8th grade I was well-ahead of both of my brothers’ paces on growth charts. Oh well.

Now, I still enjoy playing and watching, but the truth remains that for a significant portion of my young life, it was too important to me. What I am going to share with you now is the moment I realized it wasn’t that important.

“We want Will, we want Will…”

My freshman year at ETBU, I had worked my way up from JV to varsity over the Christmas break. Now, it helped that some people failed out, but I also legitimately beat out some others. That was the last year ETBU had J-term, a month-long mini-session before the Spring semester. During J-term, I was occasionally getting to play in varsity games, but the majority of ETBU students were not on-campus yet to see that happen.

Fast forward: the Spring semester has started, it is the last home game, Senior Day, against Letourneau, Shadow Day…perhaps the biggest crowd I’d seen in Ornelas Gym. My mother wanted to attend, but I urged her to go to my younger brother’s junior high game instead since the previous game against Letourneau had been close and I hadn’t played.

Long story short, we got up by 20 and I had a “Rudy moment”.

This should have been a crowning achievement for me, given my physical stature, my medical condition, and the work that had to occur to get to that point. However, that “basketball culmination” was mostly empty. The people that cheered for me to get in most-likely assumed I was awful, for one, but beyond that I had no one with whom to share it. Few people I cared greatly for were there. My parents were at the junior high game, several of my better friends had left, my then-girlfriend left the game early and I couldn’t get in-touch with her (pre-cell phone Will Walker), and my good friend that is now my wife wasn’t there. It is a story that quite literally only exists in a few memories and in a poor-quality VHS cassette.

To that point, I’d always tried to use basketball to fulfill something more in my life beyond just exercise and having fun, and when I finally did something “of note”, it was totally unsatisfying.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon notes that “what” we do is important, but I also think that the relationships we forge along the way are indescribably valuable. “Triumphs” aren’t all that fun unless there are people with which to share them.

Even more than that, though, I think that I’d made basketball an idol.

Exodus 20:3-4

“You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”

Basketball in and of itself isn’t idolatry, but even good things can become idols. The linked blog post notes how the Israelites made something good (Moses’ staff) into an idol. Although it served God’s purpose at one time, it was made evil by the human heart. Basketball served (and continues to serve) important purposes in my life, but it was not the “end”, it was the “means”. For a long time I could not keep that in the proper perspective.

I hope that the interactions I have with our students helps them to put the things they do in the proper perspective as well. I have many students whose majority of self-worth is tied to athletic performance (or choir, or debate, or theatre, or grades, or socializing…), but we are so much more than those things. Extracurriculars might be the “means” that gets a person to ETBU or to another important spot in life (i.e. basketball, tallness, and Shawn Bradley), but it our job as professors to ensure that students never look at any potentially-idolatrous thing as the “end”, ruining something that pursued in moderation might serve good.

WW

A Change is Gonna Come

You know how at the end of a season of your favorite show all the characters are usually pictured alone in a room staring off into space, or comforting each other after a big ordeal, or sharing a congratulatory hug right before the music changes and the next monster/bad guy comes into the picture?

MASH TV Cast, 1974

MASH TV Cast, 1974 / Source: Wikipedia

Whatever the ending, it’s usually not very conclusive.

I always have the  “whew, we made it through that” feeling, but never really know what’s coming next.

That is exactly how I feel at the end of this semester. Whew – I made it through my fourth semester at ETBU!

I taught some new classes and some that I had taught before. I met lots of new, great students. I moved into a new house on campus, and started as the new Faculty  in Residence for Ornelas Hall.

**Insert congratulatory hugs**

But there are lots of loose ends left untied…

**Insert music change**

funny-pictures-dramatic-cat-asks-where-the-sting-of-death-is by zebedee.zebedee
on FlickR

We still do not have a new President for ETBU, and Dr. Dub’s shoes are still just as daunting to fill.

We are losing one of the great staples in the ETBU community. A much-loved professor, Centennial Hall FIR, and personal mentor: Dr. Elijah Brown. God has led him to another great opportunity, but who will step in here?

What are we to do when the future seems unclear? I trust God, but still I worry/wonder.

Hebrews 13:8 seems especially helpful here:

Appreciate your pastoral leaders who gave you the Word of God. Take a good look at the way they live, and let their faithfulness instruct you, as well as their truthfulness. There should be a consistency that runs through us all. For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.

The authorship of Hebrews is unknown, but many scholars think it was written by Paul.

Whoever it was most certainly wrote this letter to the Hebrew people, encouraging them to trust Christ, explaining who He can be for them, and showing how much better life can be with Him.

I’m not from Hebrew,  and I already trust Christ. But it is nice to be reminded how steadfast Jesus is – completely unchanging.

In our lives, change is inevitable. The end of a semester, the end of a season, the start of something new.

But God is always there, and He never changes. We even celebrate His birthday on the same day every year :)

Speaking of, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas! Thank you to all the readers of this blog. It has been fun sharing thoughts with you!

Even though the soundtrack to our little show may seem a little tense right now, we can all take comfort in God, and know that Jesus is taking care of us individually and as an ETBU family just like He always has.

Who knows? Maybe next season/semester, all plot lines will be settled!

Merry Christmas everyone, and have a great break!!
AML

What are you thankful for?

Ahhh Thanksgiving….

Photo Credit: dog.happy.art via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: dog.happy.art via Compfight cc

Many a blog post has been written about Thanksgiving not really being about the turkey, not about the food, and all about family! Not necessarily on this page, but you know what I mean.

So for this blog, I want to tell you about my Thanksgiving break assuming that you already know all of the above. Why beat a dead turkey, you know?

I am blessed to usually be able to spend Thanksgiving with my family. My parents and sister live in Nebraska, which is really far away from Texas, yet somehow we manage to meet up for this holiday!

Last year, they came to our house in Marshall. This year, we all met in New Orleans and had SO MUCH FUN!!

If you’ve been to NOLA at all, you know that all the food we had was awesome. And the shopping was great too!

But now that I’m reflecting on the trip, I can see that I also learned/was reminded to be thankful for a whole lot. And that’s what I’d like to share today.

1. I am thankful for the hospitality of the south.

As you can see, it was super cute, and really close to the French Quarter!

As you can see, it was super cute, and really close to the French Quarter!

We tried something new on this trip; instead of the six of us (both my parents, my husband and I, my sister and her husband) paying for 3 hotel rooms for 4 nights, we found a house to rent from AirBnB.com.

It was just really nice to be able to stay in a neighborhood and get the full experience of New Orleans :)

2 women own this house, and they left us all kinds of necessities like shampoo, soap, hair products, a hair dryer, etc.

Their hospitality was just amazing!

2. I am thankful for the rebirth of New Orleans since Katrina.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was living in Nebraska. I have a whole lot of family who live down here though, so I still felt some of the effects personally.

street

I have one uncle who lives in Kenner (about 30 minutes from New Orleans), and he and his wife had to evacuate and rebuild their home like so many others.

Seeing the city back to life on this trip made me so happy! There were lots of musicians, street performers, artists, and tourists back on the street like it used to be!

You can still tell that the storm had lasting effects on everything. Even some of the street art we saw was made out of reclaimed Katrina wood, or wood from the rebuilding of houses, etc.

The people have picked themselves up though, and I love that spirit!

3. I am thankful for my husband.

I am thankful for my husband every day, but he was especially wonderful on this trip. You see, he was crazy sick.

Coughing and snot-filled, he drove us to New Orleans and still managed to have a great time while we were there!

Admittedly, he couldn’t taste the beignets at Cafe du Monde on the first day (TRAGEDY!), but we went back the next day just for him :)

Photo Credit: nerdling via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: nerdling via Compfight cc

It was a real hardship!

So all in all, we had a great Thanksgiving!

I hope you had a great one too, and that you can remember what you’re thankful for!

AL

An Ironic Christmas Song

14 - Christmas Child

Photo Credit: murilocardoso via Compfight cc

Band Aid 30 is a 2014 charity music group featuring a range of top-selling British pop musicians including One Direction, Chris Martin of Coldplay and Bono of U2.  The group recently released a song entitled, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”  This is an update of a 1984 song by the same title rewritten for the twenty-first century in general and the Ebola crisis in West Africa in particular.  They lyrics read in part:

It’s Christmas time – there’s no need to be afraid
At Christmas time – we let in light and banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time

But say a prayer, pray for the other ones
At Christmas time, it’s hard but while you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear
Where a kiss of love can kill you
Where there’s death in every tear
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you

Bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa
A song of hope where there’s no hope tonight
Why is comfort to be feared, why is touch to be scared
How can they know it’s Christmas time at all

Admiringly, 100% of the proceeds of the song are being contributed to the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa which according to recently released numbers by the World Health Organization has sickened more than 16,000 people and killed almost 7,000.

Nonetheless the song has come under persistent criticism for a paternalistic approach and a music video that jarringly moves from Ebola-stricken patients in Africa to smiling celebrities in a first world context.

From a world Christianity perspective the song is certainly wrapped in irony given the increasingly secular nature of most western countries and the exploding Christian growth in many African nations.

I have just recently finished teaching a core section on world Christianity at East Texas Baptist University that along with other scholars such as Andrew Walls and Philip Jenkins postulated the following thesis:

The key Christian development of the 21st Century is the maturation of churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the emergence of African, Asian and Latin American Christians as the normative face of Christianity and the predominant proponents of Christianity.

Andrew Walls writes, “The majority of those who profess the Christian faith are now Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Pacific Islanders; and they substantially outnumber the professed Christians of Europe, the old Christendom, and its North American outcrop.”

Miriam Adeney describes:

At least eighty million Chinese in China name Jesus as Lord.  So do millions more Chinese outside the country.  In Africa four hundred million Africans praise Jesus.  There are fifteen times more Anglicans worshipping in Nigeria every Sunday than there in Britain.  There were more Free Methodists in the small countries of Rwanda and Burundi than there are in the United States.  There are forty-five million evangelicals in Brazil supporting 4,700 Brazilian missionaries.  In Latin America there are more Christians than in all of the United States and Europe.  The same is true in Africa, and again in Asia.  By 2025 there will be as many Pentecostals as there are Hindus, and twice as many Pentecostals as Buddhists.

It is estimated that by 2025 approximately 25% of the world’s Christians will be white Euro-Americans while a stunning 70% of all Christians will live in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  The case for Africa is particularly telling.

Douglas Jacobsen notes that never before in the history of the world has Christianity expanded so quickly in any region than it has over the last 100 years in the continent of Africa.  In 1900 there were 10 million Christians in Africa while today there are 400 million.  In terms of overall population Christianity expanded from approximately 10% of the population in 1900 to 46% of the entire population in Africa today.  50% of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa already have majority Christian populations.  African Christians are increasingly sending African missionaries to Europe and North America in a process loosely known as missions in reverse.

Statistically, a more normative face of Christianity would be a West African female than would be a group of predominantly white British pop musicians asking, “Do they know it’s Christmas?”

This is especially true given the secularization around the Christmas holiday in Europe and North America and the growing embrace of a generic spirituality and materialistic celebration tempered with feel-good benevolence.

The biblical narrative calls for a far more radical reorientation of our lives around Immanuel, born in a manager, crucified on the cross, resurrected from the grave.   Seen from a world Christian perspective the question and focus of the song perhaps ought to be reversed: do we know that it is Christ-mas?

EMB

Past

In Summer 2009, after 6 years of marriage, my wife and I had our first summer “free” as a couple. Prior to that, every summer was some combination of moving, taking new jobs, and (mostly) doing graduate work. Ruthie approached me one evening about possibly going on a road trip, to which I was agreeable.

Now, those of you that know my wife professionally probably know what happened next. Within a few hours, we had a detailed day-by-day travel itinerary, reservations (when needed), a budget, places to stay for free with various family members, and planned activities for a 20-day road trip, all laid out graphically in a variety of calendars, charts, and maps. In other words, I was pretty much locked into taking this trip, which is OK, because it turned out to be one of greatest (if not the greatest) experiences of my life. Here was the approximated route (you might need to click on the picture to get the mileage details):

Week13 Trip Map

(Essentially, our only costs were for gas, because nearly every night of the trip we stayed either with one of Ruthie’s family members or in a tent in a state or national park.)

I often reference this trip in my courses because of the wide variety of experiences that I encountered; here are a few:

There was this big pothole we had to drive around in Arizona.

There was this big pothole we had to drive around in Arizona.

"I wish I were big."

“I wish I were big.”

One of the most surprising things on the trip was this AWESOME woodworking shop in the middle of an Oregon forest.

One of the most surprising things on the trip was this AWESOME woodworking shop in the middle of an Oregon forest.

My wife felt progressively sicker the longer we stayed at Yellowstone; turns out it probably wasn't the best place to take someone with a sulphate allergy (within an hour of leaving the park she felt nearly completely better).

My wife felt progressively sicker the longer we stayed at Yellowstone; turns out it probably wasn’t the best place to take someone with a sulphate allergy (within an hour of leaving the park she felt nearly completely better).

This trip had tremendous benefits to me individually and to my wife and I as a couple. I think about elements of this journey often, and I look forward to a time when we can do a similar, walking/exercise/adventure-heavy vacation with our children; I figure in about ten years.


In May 2013, as I was getting into my car to go to work, my key chain broke. This normally would not be all that significant of an event; trinkets like a mere key chain break all of the time.

However, this was personally significant for me. (I feel like this is the point that I should lay down on a couch to tell you the rest of this story.)

My sophomore year in high school, I was still felt very socially outcast, and while I tried to be kind and helpful to people, I rarely felt as if that affection was reciprocated. Now given, it probably was, but I was not as confident as I am (or feign) now so I probably just didn’t pick up on it.

So anyway, every year the women’s basketball team at Avinger would pick a “basketball beau” and the men’s team would pick a “basketball sweetheart”, and there was a little ceremony at a game and it was a kinda sweet deal. Basically, it was like a poor man’s homecoming king and queen, except based on “showing the most support for the basketball team of the opposite sex.” So, we get to the game in which this award is given, and shockingly, I received it. For one of the first times as a teenager, I felt genuine acceptance from a group of my peers. It also helped my confidence that it was girls that did the voting. ☺

As part of the award, I got a really nice key chain engraved “AHS BEAU”. For 16 years (fully half of my life) that was the key chain that I used for all of my keys; only my wife really ever realized it, and probably only then because a couple of years ago the mechanical latch that allowed you to separate its two key rings broke and I futilely tried to have it repaired.

Week13 Key ChainWell, on that day in May 2013, the key chain itself just broke, with the metal holding the ring itself simply falling off from wear. There was no going back. For the first 30 minutes or so of my day, I was really bummed out.

Then something interesting happened: I sat down to manipulate keys on the two “plain” key rings that were left, and I discovered that the keys now fit better. It turns out that over the previous several weeks my keys had been stabbing me in the leg, and I’d actually examined how I could lessen the number of keys themselves. While all of the keys were deemed essential and I continued on with things jabbing into my leg, I’d never once thought for a split second that removing the “AHS BEAU” keychain could ease my burden, but it did.

I was so blindly holding onto this little thing from the past that I was unable to realize that it was actually what was causing all of my pain.

1 Corinthians 13:11

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me”


Today’s blog is about the past.

Sometimes the past is full of triumphs, adventures, and great lessons that we can use to drive our future.

At the same time, sometimes the tiny things from our past that we cling to are the very things that are the source of our troubles. I see this each semester in students that cannot escape some element of their past experiences, and instead they are forever dragged down by things that can never be changed (short of building a time machine).

As professors and advisors, we must help our students identify those things from the past worth remembering and celebrating, while at the same time working to identify those things from the past that serve only to pull them down, restricting them from reaching God’s ultimate purposes for their lives.

WW

Ride the Storm

About this time every year, I start seeing more and more students with a perpetual scowl on their faces. Never mind that Thanksgiving Break is just around the corner – these students are STRESSED!

Photo Credit: Amy McTigue via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Amy McTigue via Compfight cc

Maybe you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of homework and projects, or you just can barely see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Regardless, most students (and professors!) experience some tension about this time of the semester.

But if we are followers of Christ, and truly trust God, what is there to be worried about?

I’m talking to myself just as much as anyone right now… it is so easy to try and control everything and worry that it won’t work out.

Did I study hard enough for this test? Did I work hard enough on this report? Will they like it? Will people be disappointed in me? What should I do now? How am I going to fix this problem?….

Thankfully, God hasn’t left us alone to flounder under the pressure.

Check out Psalm 55:22-23 (MSG)

Pile your troubles on God’s shoulders—
    he’ll carry your load, he’ll help you out.
He’ll never let good people
    topple into ruin.
But you, God, will throw the others
    into a muddy bog,
Cut the lifespan of assassins
    and traitors in half.

And I trust in you.

Pretty cool, right?

I can’t say that I personally know many assassins, but it is comforting to know that God has a plan to cut their lifespans short!

There are lots of “Christian-ese” phrases that point to the fact that we already know we’re not supposed to worry, and that instead we should trust God:

  • Put your trust in the Lord
  • Let go, and let God
  • When God closes a door, He opens a window
  • God never gives us more than we can handle

You can probably think of some more yourself.

But when was the last time you said that to yourself in the middle of a freak-out? And even if you did, did it stop you from worrying?

This church sign points out that every Christian already knows we are supposed to trust God, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Photo Credit: Joshua Daniel O. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Joshua Daniel O. via Compfight cc

So, I hope you can take some comfort in knowing that you’re not alone when you feel pressure.

Also, you’re not alone when you struggle to stop worrying and trust God.

You may feel alone if you’re fighting to do well in classes, but you don’t have to! Every ETBU professor would love to help a student in trouble. All you have to do is ask!

I read something online today that told the story of a one-fingered king. The king cursed God, blaming Him for the loss of a finger. What the king didn’t know what that God planned to save his life all along – He just used the lack of a finger to do it!

Photo Credit: tim caynes via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: tim caynes via Compfight cc

The point of that story, and my post, is that it’s important for us to remember that we don’t know God’s plan for our lives.

When it seems like stuff is going wrong and there’s no way out, it may be exactly there God wants you!

The best thing all of us can do is try and ride the storm, and keep trusting that God will work everything out like He wants it!

AL

Denominations in an Age of Globalization

In Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything authors Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams write, “stability is dead.  The idea that you can invent a business that will never be disrupted by technology is over.”  Tapscott and Williams welcome us into an age of globalization, an age of disruption, an age of flux and fluidity, an age driven by an accelerating growth of technology, an age that is creating global platforms, global access points and global citizens.

Photo Credit: Lars Plougmann via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lars Plougmann via Compfight cc

We live in an age of globalization.  This reality really needs no introduction.  And in the age of globalization stability is dead.

This is as true for denominations as it is for churches, ministries and corporations.

This week I will be leading a group of students from East Texas Baptist University (ETBU) to the annual gathering of the Baptist General Convention of Texas as part of an ongoing effort to instill a vision of collaborative partnership.  While teaching at ETBU I consistently challenge our students to seek to develop the skills necessary to live, listen and lead as global leaders.  If it is true that we are living in an age of globalization it is essential our educational models and denominational platforms continue to adapt accordingly.  An age of globalization demands globalized denominations.

Towards this end three broad principles are applicable.

First, in an age of globalization denominations must pursue open structures and mass collaboration. 

In the twenty-first century, to return to Tapscott and Williams, “we must collaborate or perish – across borders, cultures, disciplines, and firms, and increasingly with masses of people at one time.”  This is an age of participation.  Millions of individuals connect with each other on Facebook; post pictures on Instagram; record and upload movies on YouTube; and tweet their vote for their favorite singing contestants.  Participation is driven by individuals who anticipate that they will be able to contribute their voice, their perspective, their talents and their passion.  Individuals are not only looking to talk to the many, they are looking to connect with the many in order to foster partnerships that identify issues, solve problems and contribute towards a better society.

In his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman notes, “while the dynamic force in Globalization 1.0 was countries globalizing and the dynamic force in Globalization 2.0 was companies globalizing, the dynamic force in Globalization 3.0 – the force that gives it its unique character – is the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally.”  The same might be said of churches.

What would it mean for a denomination to be based on an open structure?  An open structure might imply at least the following:

Ongoing Transparency and Information Exchange.  In an age when companies, churches and denominations have lost the ability to command absolute loyalty, one currency remains: trust.  The denominations that will be transformative in an age of globalization will be those that foster a sense of trust between the participants and the denomination and between the participants themselves.  This will require new levels of transparency and all the more so as denominations look to sell, lease or otherwise relocate traditional headquarters.

Very Low Barriers to Participation.  Individuals should be empowered to freely join in the conversation and freely contribute towards the fulfillment of common goals and objectives.  A low barrier of participation is different than low accountability.  A low barrier to participation allows early engagement in the design process.  As a simplistic example, perhaps denominations could use crowd sourcing models to determine break-out sessions and speakers for annual meetings.  An open structure is built around a model actively encouraging participation and interaction by as many individuals as possible.  This will inevitably cause a shift away from a model of centralized hierarchy to one that is more fluid and more genuinely shares control.  Every denomination must ask how to make their organization more of a platform for participation and innovation development?

Second, in an age of globalization denominations must lead through networks that are at all times local, regional and global.

Photo Credit: Melissa Marques via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Melissa Marques via Compfight cc

Several years ago in an edition of Foreign Affairs, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, “In the twenty-first century, corporations, civic organizations, and government agencies will increasingly operate by collecting the best ideas from around the globe.  In such an environment, it is critical not only to stimulate domestic innovation but also to foster networks that can produce collaborative innovations across the globe.”  She continues, “In this century, global power will increasingly be defined by connections – who is connected to whom and for what purposes.”

Leadership in a globalized context requires the building and activation of networks and the reframing of needs, talents, ministry and opportunities into one that simultaneously embraces the local, regional and global.

This is all the more pressing given the increasingly urban reality of polyglots and multiculturalism.  Mass immigration is altering our communities and heightening the interconnectivity of the world.  A recent blog I wrote, for example, highlighted how a group of Eritrean refugee churches in Texas tendered a request that eventually lead to human rights documentation being submitted to multiple governments around the world and formal representation by a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship partner working on behalf of the Baptist World Alliance at the recent Universal Periodic Review of Eritrea by the United Nations in Geneva.  In an age of global networks fostering connections among and between ethnic churches must be seen as a denominational priority.

Denominations should also look to increasingly share information, resources and personnel.  This will likely result in more decentralized organizations and an increase in individual specialists who are employed and shared by several organizations.  One helpful model is the work of the North American Baptist Fellowship’s Disaster Relief Network.  Additional pan-denominational networks are needed.  Among Baptists perhaps no new network is needed as is the establishment of an international religious freedom network.

Third, in an age of globalization denominations must live prophetically. 

Denominations must view prophetic witness, especially in areas of social justice, as critical.  In this age of globalization denominations must ask again what it means to act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.

EMB

Reminders

A note for the email recipients of today’s blog: to get the full effect you will want to actually go to the website today, as there are several pictures.

Week12 ReminderBut first, some house cleaning. Waaay back in Week 6 of this semester (which published on October 3rd), I threw out a challenge; when discussing some stories Alan Huesing was telling me I wrote:

“The stories almost seemed fake; I half-expected him to tell me about how he rode a unicorn through Mordor on his way to blow up the Death Star. (Just thinking about that makes me giggle. The first person that Photoshops that image together and adds it to the comments gets at least $20 from me.)”

Well, to my surprise I was checking through my Facebook messages earlier this week and there was one un-checked message from October 6th that I had somehow missed; Facebook had filed it under “Other”. Here are its contents.

Awesome Photoshop? $20.  Hours of uncontrolled giggling? Priceless.

Awesome Photoshop? $20.
Hours of uncontrolled giggling? Priceless.

I am a man of my word. Although not posted in the comments of the blog, the $20 has been paid out in full. Good job, mystery artist.

Always Something There to Remind Me

I think it is important to remind yourself of different things. Pre-iPad, I would have sticky notes and ¼ pieces of paper everywhere on my desk and office, just to keep me on the right track. As busy as I am now, I was infinitely busier a couple of years ago, to the point that my office would sometimes look like that barn from A Beautiful Mind (note: I literally spent hours looking for a video of that scene…no luck; if you saw the movie you know what I mean).

With the iPad “Notes” app and now the “Reminders” app I use on my phone, I can keep organized with significantly less clutter. That said, I think beyond continuing to “Write it down so you don’t forget”, it is also important to keep around tangible reminders: of things that are important to you, of things that inspire you, of things that bring a smile to your face, of things that you love, of successes, and of losses.

I keep many things like this in my office:

Now, while these items do admittedly contribute to the clutter of my office, they are also all very important, as they do commemorate different points of my life.

However, keeping tangible reminders is exactly what the Israelites did when they crossed the Jordan and set up the 12 stones:

Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.

In the same way, we need to find tangible ways to remember what it important so that we can always maintain the most-Godly perspective possible.

WW