Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why can't we be friends?

In this lengthy, all-text post, I will reflect on two experiences this week that ignited no small amount of spiritual and intellectual energy in me.  If you're up to the challenge of hanging with me, read on after the break for an exploration of interfaith dialogue, psycho-social theology, and discipleship...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reflecting on a Flexible Providence

For the Seminary's School for Leadership Training (SLT) this year, pastor and professor, Dr. Gregory A. Boyd came and delivered a series of lectures on the topic of Christianity in America – largely based on his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation – and a workshop on Open Theism (Open View). In this post, I will focus on the latter, first with some of my personal background in respect to Dr. Boyd and Open Theism, then focusing on the lecture material itself.  Read on after the break for more!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: "Children of Hurin" by J.R.R. Tolkien

As a sophomore in high school, I was assigned to read The Hobbit by my English teacher. I've been thanking him ever since. A year later, I picked up a huge single-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and read it, as I recall, in about a month. Loved them all.  So when the movies adaptations started rolling out in 2001, I was overjoyed, and had in fact been following their development as much as two years before their release. One of my fondest movie nerd memories came in 2003, with the release of LOTR: The Return of the King in theaters. With a pack of friends, we attended "Trilogy Tuesday" at a theater in greater Des Moines that was showing all three movies in succession. We spent nearly 12 hours in a movie theater packed with fellow nerds. It smelled funny.

Last month, my wife went on a ladies-only trip to NYC, so my daughter and I set about watching a movie-a-night from the LOTR trilogy. With that enjoyable experience fresh in my mind, I picked up from the library the latest book to be published from the Middle-Earth universe, The Children of Hurin, of course by J.R.R. Tolkien, but also extensively edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien.  There was some hesitation on my part going into reading it, as I had unsuccessfully attempted to read The Silmarillion in high school after completing the LOTR trilogy. Happily, this book captured me in much the same way that The Hobbit and LOTR had before.

The Children of Hurin takes place in Middle-Earth, but in the "First Age" or the "Elder Days," thousands of years before the events found in the most popular storyline.  The protagonist of the book is Turin, the son of a king (Hurin). Threatened by darkening days in his childhood, Turin is sent away and raised by Elves and becomes nearly indistinguishable from them in appearance and ability. Cursed by the Dark Lord, Morgoth (predecessor to Sauron from LOTR), Turin is haunted all his days, despite the great success and valor he attains.

This story is much more of a straight-forward narrative than is LOTR, but is still set within, and instrumental to the massive world that Tolkien dreamed up in Middle-Earth. Despite Tolkien himself never being much of a fan of allegory, his readers have often touted the allegorical merits of LOTR. This nature of this story offers much less in the way of allegorical connections, which is perhaps to the author's intent. This book is also not a "happy ending" book, as are The Hobbit and LOTR. So readers who can't live without happy endings shouldn't take this one up. But it has elves, swords with names, dragons, and quests, so what more could a fantasy-fiction reader want?

The book read quickly, and I was actually surprised when I got to the end that it was finished, wanting more. What added to my delight in this book are the appendices at the end, which is common to Tolkien's stories. In the first appendix, Tolkien's son, Christopher, explains the historical context of the development of this story, which started and stopped over much of his father's life. Hearing the story behind the stories of Middle-Earth was enjoyable. Family genealogies and a glossary were also provided, all of which I read. Oh, and to my nerdly delight, there was a fold-out map of the area in which the story take place, designed so that you can unfold it while reading the book and refer to it as you read along! (You need it, if you want to keep your bearings.)

From cover to cover, I soaked this book up like a sponge. It gave me my first narrative taste of the First Age of Middle-Earth, offering me a deeper sense of the history and trajectory of the world. The moments in the book which registered some connection to future events that I was already familiar with were exciting. It also deepened my appreciation for the genius of J.R.R. Tolkien in the creation of this massive world with its long history and intricately-woven narratives of the Children of Iluvatar, the Elves and Men.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sara Wenger Shenk: A leadership biography

When I came to Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in 2008 to begin graduate studies, I did so specifically to be dual-enrolled in both the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) and the Seminary (EMS), working toward a degree in each program. When the time came to plan my seminary classes for the first semester, I sat down with Sara Wenger Shenk, the associate dean of the Seminary, to do so. As I look back on that experience from a year and half ago, I seem to recall that my first impression of Sara was fairly neutral. She struck me as quiet and reflective, perhaps even a bit intimidating to someone new to the university community, such as myself.

But over the course of my time here at EMU, I have come to see a tremendously deep well of wisdom, insight, and zeal for her work and community from Sara, not to mention a profound awareness and expression of her Christian faith that has made an equally profound impression on my own faith. In the crowd of wonderful professors, mentors, leaders, advisors – both academic and spiritual – and friends that I am exposed to here, Sara stands out. It is the intention of this paper to describe the kind of leader that Sara is. I will do this by way of relating my own experiences of her leadership in her various roles, along with elements of her own reflections on her formational journey that has brought her to this point. In addition, I have interviewed two other people in the Seminary context and will incorporate their reflections into this paper, providing a multi-dimensional view of Sara Wenger Shenk's expression of leadership.

Read on after the break for my reflections on Sara and her leadership...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Book critique: "The Hidden Lives of Congregations" by Israel Galindo

In this enlightening and well-written book, Israel Galindo takes his understanding and experiences with American congregational life, seen through the multi-dimensional lens of Bowen family systems theory, and presents pastors and church leaders with a theoretical and practical resource for navigating these complicated organizations. Perhaps the most helpful piece of wisdom in this book is his challenge to popular Western understandings of the organizational nature of congregations, continually making the case that “congregations are living organisms that follow universal principles of systemic relationships.” (p. 1) It is from this perspective of congregations as living organisms with relational emotional processes that all subsequent content flows.

Read on after the break for my in-depth summary and critique of this book...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Baby, we were born to run...sans shoes

At the end of April of last year, a few of my friends and I took a dudes-only trip out to Assateague Island, on the coast of Maryland. (The banner picture at the top of the page was taken there.)  Anyway, one day while we were there, one of the guys and I ran about 4 miles on the beach, and we did it in our bare feet.  Now, ever since I was a kid, I've loved being barefoot, particularly during the summer breaks from school. I loved the leathery toughness of my feet by summers-end. Walking on rocks and having it not bother me a bit. In high school, when Honnold was playing gigs around central Iowa, I would do the shows barefoot. Now at EMU, I spend the months of March to December in either flip-flops or my bare feet. In the words of Jim Zabel (nod to Iowa folks): "I love it, I love it, I love it!"

So after running on the beach barefoot this past April, and loving it, I started running my home route barefoot, and did so through the summer and into the fall. Obviously, I'm not out there doing it right now (it's 19 degrees F, at present, in Harrisonburg, VA). But along the way this year, I stumbled on a few things that supported me in my barefoot running venture.

This Wired magazine article: To Run Better, Start by Ditching Your Nikes

Then this author (and runner), Christopher McDougall, appeared on the Daily Show back in August, talking about his book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (on my to-read list).

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Christopher McDougall

Daily Show
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Political Humor
Health Care Crisis

There's also something about running barefoot that helps your feet do a better job of doing what they were designed for: shock absorption. Your stride is completely different when running barefoot. The typical stride while wearing running shoes is heel-toe. But when you're barefoot, you actually hit mid-foot, letting your arch do its job.  See this quick YouTube video (also posted in the Wired article):

Despite running barefoot and being okay with bare skin on asphalt, those Vibram FiveFingers do look pretty sweet...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Calculate your leaps, mind the gap

At first glance, it seemed like a no-nonsense jump. And that first glance was all the thought I gave it. With my body weighed down by a backpack and my pockets full of stuff, I took a few steps back from the edge, ran forward, and jumped.  I cleared the gap just fine, but landed a bit too close to the edge for comfort.  The extra weight on my body hadn't quite been fully accounted for. Turning around, I looked down the gap that I had just jumped across. It wasn't very wide, just a few feet, but it was deep. A long way down to the rocky bottom.  Looking across the gap to where I had jumped from, I noticed that the ledge was higher than the small table-like shelf of rock on which I now stood.  Looking to the left at the only other edge connected to the main cliff face, the gap was smaller, but the other side sloped too steeply upward, with no signs of adequate foot- or hand-holds.

On the face of a cliff within in Red River Gorge near Slade, Kentucky - in Daniel Boone National Forest - I began to get nervous.

(The picture above - taken minutes before I jumped to the rock shelf visible to my lower-left - is fairly descriptive of my attitude prior to the jump, having a certain "uuhhh...wha?" look about me.)

Hiking with me was my wife, my sister-in-law, and her husband, David. The picture below was taken later in our hike, across the gorge. The red circle indicates the rock on which I was stuck. (see the full-sized picture)

The following picture, again taken before I jumped, would be looking to the left of the red circle if you use the picture above as a frame of reference. The size of David in regard to the cliff should give somewhat of an idea of the scale. (see the full-sized picture)

Back on the rock, I paced nervously about, trying to figure out what to do. By then, David had come down to where I had jumped across and surveyed the situation. Before I jumped, I thought he might leap over with me, us both being adventurous outdoorsy types. But seeing the predicament I had gotten myself into...he didn't. So instead of joining me in folly, he started helping me figure out what to do. I threw my backpack over to him to relieve some of the weight, and began psyching myself up to make the jump back across to where I had come from. But the image of long drop was hovering in my mind's eye, and the light dusting of snow near the edge - potential slip hazard - where I would jump wasn't helping either. David was poised at the other side of the gap, arm extended, ready to grab me. Once or twice, I counted aloud down from 3. Once I actually even began taking the steps toward the edge to jump.

But I couldn't do it. I re-evaluated the situation. Walking back to the edge of the gap, I looked down again, then looked across. Would it be easier to run and jump, or do a standing jump across? By this time, my wife and her sister had made their way down to see what was going on. After a few minutes of watching David and I, my wife got too anxious and had to walk away.

Finally, we worked out a plan that didn't involve me attempting to jump the gap, possibly falling to severe injury or worse. On another edge of the rock shelf, to the left of where I had jumped, with the gap that was much more narrow (but no less deep) and the cliff that was too steep for one person to climb up from the isolated rock shelf, the three people on the other side sat down in a chain with David at the end. They anchored themselves to each other, legs-to-arms, to support David at the end, sitting at an angle that would probably have me pulling him down off were he not supported by the others. On the rock shelf, I toed the edge and tipped myself over the gap like a domino, resting my hands on the main cliff just below David's leg and outstretched arm. I found a foothold on the other side of the gap and put one foot over, along with the rest of my upper body already bridging the gap. Reaching up with one hand, I grasped tightly to David's wrist, and he to mine. He pulled up, while I worked my feet up the rock and climbed up to safety. I was back on terra firma.

While I kissed the rock, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and we continued on our hike, which was a beautiful one. It took me about 15 minutes to come out of the mild emotional shock or trauma that I was experiencing. My prayers related to this experience - during, immediately after, and even now - are 1) thanksgiving for my family, who rescued me, and 2) for better foresight in my future dealings, whether outdoor/adventure-related or otherwise. Had my wits been about me, the whole ordeal wouldn't have even transpired. There were a number of oversights I made leading up to the leap, and it was only through loving support and action that I came back across the gap.

May it be so for me, and whoever else may resonate with this parable.