Category Archives: Uncategorized

GOD’S REJECTED KING: A Story of Saul

I’ve just published my first novel.  I could call it ‘historical fiction’ but I think a better term for it is ‘a novel based on the biblical account of Israel’s first king.’   I have been working on this book for three years but the questions it raises have been with me for as long as I’ve thought about God, life and faith.

Some who read it may think I am a cynical and perhaps even angry believer.  They would be wrong.  Unlike the protagonist in the novel, I am thankful for the bounty I have received in all dimensions of my life and the ways I believe God has spoken to me in and through others and through his Word.

What I do argue against in my story is the too easy and quick dismissal of Saul as a ‘bad king’.  He was ill-equipped for leadership, blind-sided by God, then punished for not performing.  My sense of justice chafes at the mysterious sovereignty of God.

I realize this novel raises many questions about the nature and character of God. I provide no answers because Saul had no answers.

I am interested in hearing your reactions to GOD’S REJECTED KING: A Story of Saul

My book is available at http://www.amazon.com

WALLS AND BRIDGES

Donald Trump insists that to preserve our security we must build a wall to keep people out. Pope Francis declares that to achieve peace we must build bridges between peoples.  Three weeks ago I did both.  I constructed a bridge by building a wall.thumb_img_0612_1024

From October 2 to October 8 I participated in Habitat for Humanity’s “Big Build” in northern Vietnam.  I joined two hundred volunteers from around the world in building twenty houses for poor families near the city of Viet Tri.  We constructed bridges by building walls.

I was the team leader for the twelve volunteers who worked on house number two.  Each day we rode a bus from our hotel to our construction site.  As we passed emerald green rice paddies and cassava fields I reflected on the insanity of war. Like most of the US Habitat volunteers I remember the horrors, conflicts and agonies surrounding the war in Vietnam.  Over 58,000 US troop died in this tropical country and an untold number of survivors, including my friends Jim and Frank, continue to be haunted by PTSD and other war related demons.  The stated goal of that war was to stop the spread of communism. Yet here I was, in a communist country, building a home for a poor Vietnamese family with the support and approval of the communist government.

For five days we mixed cement and lay bricks to build the walls of house number two. Every day, as we sweat in the heat and humidity of Vietnam, I was compelled to face another side of what the locals called the ‘American war’.  The recipient of the house we were building was a war veteran and his family. Mr. Phan Van Dong was sixty-six years old. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and other maladies as a result of Agent Orange, a defoliant used in that war.  His daughter was born with birth defects affecting her mental capacity, most likely a result of genetic damage caused by that same Agent Orange.  Mr. Dong’s ability to help with the building of his house was limited but one day he joined our line as we moved bricks one by one from the stack to the interior of the house. His frail weathered body and his trembling hands reminded me that he and his country suffered far more than we did during that war.  Well over a million and a half Vietnamese died in that conflict, most of them civilians.  Over eighty four thousand children were killed.  And yet here he was, smiling and working alongside me.  As we built walls we constructed bridges.

During the week of our building project and the week of tourism that followed I was struck by the entire absence of rancor and animosity toward Americans.  Everyone was helpful, pleasant and welcoming.  Of course, over four decades have passed and time heals many wounds.  But I recognized two other factors for this open attitude.  First of all, this is a country and a people with a history that is ten times older than our own. Vietnam has dealt with invasions for millennia. I discovered that when the Vietnamese talk about driving out invaders they refer first of all to the Chinese who occupied their land for a thousand years, then the French and lastly to the US.  The “American war” was only the latest, but not the most important invasion they have dealt with.  The second reason for this lack of animosity, and the most obvious, is that the people have no time or energy to waste on holding grudges.  They are busy building, buying, selling, growing and developing.  The government may be communist but the economy is capitalist. The signs of this are everywhere. From construction cranes piercing the skyline of every city, to commuters hustling to work on motor scooters that clog every street, to young women in the highland villages peddling their handiwork to every tourist who steps out of a bus—clearly this is a nation on the move.  The Vietnamese are too busy moving into the future to fret about the past

What’s with the lemur?

You know how hearing an old song can transport you back to the days when you heard it or sang it to your lover?  Or, how smelling a fragrance can bring back a flood of feelings and memories?  This little guy, gazing fearlessly at me from his branch is a trigger for some of the most vivid memories in my recent past.

I took this picture of a lemur in March of 2014. I retired from my pastoral position at Messiah Lutheran Church in Yorba Linda, Ca. on December 31st of 2013.  Three days later I flew to Madagasgar for a three-month guest teaching stint at the Graduate School of Lutheran Theology.

For twelve weeks I lived alone in a huge two story brick home built by the Lutheran missionary society many decades earlier. I taught four graduate classes every week.  I conducted who private conversational English classes with individuals and groups.  I preached twice in the seminary chapel and twice at congregations in the city.  All of my teaching and preaching was done in English and then painstakingly translated, phrase by phrase, into Malagasy.

I suffered from jet-lag, ached with a touch of food poisoning, but mostly I struggled with loneliness.  The very few people on campus who spoke English were extremely busy.  The Malagasy language is beautiful but very different from the languages I knew.  I had no radio or TV and only occasional and sporadic internet access.  During all of my previous ministry experiences I always had Lin with me, my confidant and partner.  We could laugh and cry together about the adventures and misadventures of life and work.  Now I was quite alone.  And, more than that, I was now the “Other”.  On campus, on the streets, in the churches—wherever I went it was clear by the color of my skin that I was a vazaha, a white foreigner. The children would shout “vazaha” as I passed them on the way to the market.

During the first weeks of my time there, when I couldn’t sleep and the food made me ill, and the malaria pills gave me bizarre dreams, I thought I might not last out the semester.  I half-wished I would get malaria so I could go home.  Slowly, I did what I needed to do to survive. I developed an exercise routine, found some books to read, and began writing stories. All of these helped me stabilize the days.  But what began to make my time exciting was the teaching. Despite the translation barrier, the students were engaged.  They questioned, challenged, and wanted to learn. I was invigorated in the classroom.

As I grew more comfortable in my surroundings, I ventured on day long hikes around the city of Fianarantsoa and the countryside around it.  Over and over again I was struck by the people’s desperate struggle to survive.  Early in the morning I would see men and women from the countryside walking into the city carrying huge baskets on their heads.  They would lay out a cloth on the sidewalk and place their wares upon them, hoping that they could sell enough to keep their families alive: fruits, vegetables, chickens, firewood, used clothes, baskets.  Everything was sold on the streets. A few times I traveled with others out away from the city and saw that rural living was even more desperate.

I knew I would be leaving after one semester.  My students did not have that option.  They were committed to serving Christ and leading congregations in their native land.  I was humbled by their strength, energy and ability to move forward in hope.

At the end of my stay the seminary staged a farewell for me. The students sang for me and gave me many gifts.  That is the Malagasy way.  I left with a deeper appreciation of my own need for community.  I came home with vivid memories of the eager students and the beautiful troubled country called Madagascar.

 

Living to Serve

I retired two years ago.  Like many retirees I have found a plethora of things to fill my time.  “Fill” is not really the correct word.  I have discovered many ways to “fruitfully use” my time.

I’ve been mentoring a young man preparing for ministry, mentoring people at the Homeless Intervention Shelter, helping distribute food at the Food Pantry, and working in the Shelter’s Thrift Store called Charity’s Closet.

One of my most passionate commitmentsJ1024x680-43672 has been working with Habitat for Humanity.  For the past four years I have been organizing teams of men and women to build homes with Habitat for Humanity in other countries.

In 2016 I will be leading two trips.  In June our team of 14 will be building a home for a needy family on Prince Edward Island.

In October, I’m organizing a team of 15 that will be part of Habitat for Humanity’s Big Build in Viet Nam.  This will truly be a life changing event as we participate with groups from around the world to build adequate housing.  If you are interested in joining me, contact me and we can talk more about that possibility!VBB Volunteer Flyer (1)

So, now I’m an author

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE HOLY: Stories and Musings From a Lifetime of Ministry

It tookBOOK COVER me thirty seven years to write this book.  Or, more honestly, it took me thirty seven years to experience what I wrote about in these pages.

Writing has always been a way for me to process my thoughts and feelings; a way to see more clearly the life I am living.  These short pieces come from my journal, from my work as preacher and teacher, from letters I sent and from materials prepared for special programs and projects.

In all of these pages I try to share the spiritual struggles that many people, including Christian pastors go through.  I wrestle with meaning, faith, vocation, goodness and evil, the presence and absence of God.  I hope that readers will use these stories to stimulate their own thinking, praying, and wondering about life and God.

You can find this book at Amazon paperbacks and Kindle

How BIG is your Christmas?

giana and Santa

 

 

My 19 month old granddaughter had her first encounter with Santa Claus.  Sitting on her mother’s lap she looked at the department store Santa with growing anxiety.  “Santa, scawy, big, no like!” and then she released a full throated wail and real tears.

Isn’t it ironic what Christmas has become in our culture?  Huge bargains, loud music, gaudy lights, frantic shopping, over eating, over spending, and over doing….all of this supposedly in response to the birth of a homeless refugee baby in a tiny corner of an occupied land.

My granddaughter is no grinch.  She knows how to laugh and celebrate and love.  But she touches on something true and I agree with her.  When I look at the way our society does Christmas I often want to say “Scary, big, no like!”

The miracle and mystery of Christmas is how small and unobtrusive our God was willing to become.  The only “bombast” was a brief angel chorus sung to a few shepherds stuck on the night shift out in the Bethlehem hills.   The only “spectacle” was a star that only those trained in sky watching noticed and appreciated.

This Christmas ponder the lines from O Little Town of Bethlehem: “How silently, how silently this wondrous gift is given, when God imparts to human hearts the wonders of His heaven.”  Find a quiet space and some quiet time and ponder the amazing small and wonderful gift of Emmanuel!

 

 

 

 

Living in Exile

For Christians, the four weeks before Christmas are a time of spiritual preparation.  We call it the “Advent Season” One of my favorite Advent hymns has these words, “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here….”

Last week when 14 people were killed in San Bernardino I couldn’t help but think that we are living in exile too.  Even though most of us are living in our “native land” we are far, far away from what our land could and should be.  We as a nation languish in a reality where hateful rhetoric burns ever hotter and violence and death explode in unexpected places.

But I refuse to surrender to this hateful, divisive spewing.  I refuse to allow fear to control my life.  Though I may be in exile, I am not lonely.  Friends, family and congregation–people who share grief and longing with me, people who are willing to shout hope and compassion against those who peddle paranoia and hatred.

So I start these mornings of Advent thanking God  for the day, for the opportunities I  have to speak and show kindness.  And I sing that yearning song….O come O come Emmanuel….