Saturday, October 10, 2009

President Obama's Nobel Award

I've been doing some research into the make up of the Nobel Institute after hearing about the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama. Here's what I have learned:

1. The Nobel Institute is not in Nobel, Ontario, Canada, as many people might have assumed, but is rather in Oslo, Norway, which is somewhere in . . . Norway.

2. The entire staff and nominating committee of the Nobel Institute are very, very, very white, which is apparently what happens to you if you live for a long time in Norway.

3. Norway is actually considered to be part of Europe, which means that the people associated with the Nobel Institute are probably European. And Norwegian.

That's why this whole award to a first-term, first-year American president is a puzzle to those of us who actually live in the country over which he presides. We Americans are, they say, industrious, pragmatic, and all about results. How can the Nobel committee award the Peace Prize to someone who hasn't accomplished some things that have measurable results? If that's how it works, then maybe I can get the Nobel Prize for Literature because I'm thinking about writing a world-changing book. Somebody needs to suggest that to the Norwegians.

The GOP is mocking the president by claiming that he is receiving the prize just "for awesomeness." We Americans believe in having potential, but we generally don't give prizes for it.

Since I heard the news yesterday I've been thinking about this on two levels. First, why would a group of European intellectuals agree on this award? Second, Do I reflect on this as an American who has some particular political affiliation or as a follower of Jesus?

First, the Nobel committee claims that it awarded the prize to Mr. Obama for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons." We haven't see the accomplishment of full international diplomacy or the cooperation between peoples, but maybe the committee sees it as a foretaste of what could be. Perhaps they also see Mr. Obama's efforts as a change in the way the US has been perceived by the rest of the world. So it could be that the award was given because of what the President represents to the world. Maybe that's a European perspective contrasted to a USAmerican perspective.

Second, as a follower of Jesus, how do I reflect on this? It won't do to just pick political sides and christianize our rhetoric (although, in spite of the head-scratching that some may have over the logic of the award, I really don't understand why we wouldn't consider it somewhat of an honor that the President of our country just got the Nobel Peace Prize. Why we want our national leaders to crash and burn--as though that would be a good thing for the nation--remains a puzzle to me). Without turning anyone into a 21st century messiah (which I am not trying to do), are we able to reflect eschatalogically about this event?

To think eschatalogically is to consider how the intentions and purposes of God, which will be fully realized one day, are given in the here-and-now as a foretaste of what will come. What God gives in sign and wonder offers a deposit on the fullness that he will one day bring in the new heaven and new earth. In the continuum of Israel, Jesus and the church, we find a representative community that gives evidence that the kingdom of God is breaking into human history. We should be the ones who understand the value and meaning of something that is already, but not yet.

Maybe that group of Norwegians were having an eschatalogical moment when they made their decision. Maybe they were thinking about what might be.

I'm not qualified to say whether this award was given appropriately or not. However, I was in Europe in 2004 and got a taste of what it's like to be from a country that no one else seems to like. That America would be seen in a different light appeals to me. But no matter how we view this award, we might be better served (and be better servers) if we see it through the eyes of those who live in the expectancy of what we hope will one day be--not in political or military maneuverings, but in the reality of the kingdom of God.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Is Compassion Misplaced?

The release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has scandalized and horrified many. al-Metrahi's hero's welcome in Tripoli has enraged the people who still grieve the loss of the 270 people who died as a result of the bombing that took place twenty-one years ago. The rage that has been expressed through the media has been constant since al-Megrahi's release.

I cannot fathom the pain that must be felt by those who lost loved ones in that bombing. The sense of injustice must be overwhelming for them. I understand the power of their emotions.

Secretary MacAskill defended his decision by saying,

"In Scotland, justice is tempered with compassion. That is why he has been allowed to go home to die.

"I'm showing his family some compassion. I accept it is a compassion not shown to families in the United States or Scotland.

"But we have values and we will not debase them and we will seek to live up to those values of humanity that we pride ourselves on."

As I read his statement about the particular Scottish value of compassion, my mind went to a story told by the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann of his time of captivity in Scotland and England at the end of World War Two. Moltmann had been involved in the aerial bombings of strategic locations in Holland and was captured toward the end of the war. When the war ended, he and others were kept in the camps for the purpose of re-education so that they might return home to Germany and create a new culture there.
When Moltmann and his comrades learned of the Nazi atrocities in the death camps (as regular military, they had not been aware of the genocides), their shame was overwhelming. Many refused to return to Germany. Moltmann, however, found forgiveness in a way that he could never have anticipated. In the preface to his book, The Source of Life, he reports this experience:

“In Kilmarnock the miners and their families took us in with a hospitality which shamed us profoundly. We heard no reproaches, we were accused of no guilt. We were accepted as people, even though we were just numbers and wore our prisoners’ patches on our backs. We experienced forgiveness of guilt without any confession of guilt on our part, and that made it possible for us to live with the past of our people, and in the shadow of Auschwitz, without repressing anything, and without becoming callous.”

I have to wonder: Is there actually something embedded in the hearts of the Scottish people that allows such forgiveness in the face of obvious and confirmed guilt? Moltmann goes on to give an account of his confrontation, after his conversion to Christianity, with some Dutch theology students who relayed the effects of the bombings in which Moltmann had participated. Yet, through tears, these students reached out in forgiveness and embraced their German brothers, claiming that it was only through Jesus Christ that such forgiveness could take place.

I don't know which is more troubling to me: The sense of injustice seen in releasing one convicted of the deaths of so many people, or the disturbing ring of the Gospel in the actions of Secretary MacAskill. Jesus pointed out the counter-intuitive nature of life in the kingdom of God:

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

I know nothing of Secretary MacAskill's religious leanings. But I have to wonder if it is possible that the permeation of the Gospel in a culture can actually produce a counter-intuitive response to hatred and violence that becomes scandalous and incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Certainly Jurgen Moltmann, even before his conversion, experienced forgiveness in that context and now, it appears, so has al-Megrahi.

I continue to grieve along with those who lost loved ones in the bombing of PanAm flight 103. At the same time, my hope is that the Gospel of Jesus will continue to permeate our lives and culture. The counter-intuitive nature of the kingdom of God will continue to disturb us, but perhaps that is how we Christians might be the light of the world.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thoughts on the Passing of Dr. Ray Anderson

I first heard about Ray Anderson in 1975, during my time in the Navy. My friend, Jeff Baker, had just graduated from Westmont College and had begun his studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Jeff kept telling me that I really needed to meet Ray Anderson. Twenty years later, I did meet Ray in a systematic theology course at Fuller.

My wife, Emily, audited one of the courses I took with Ray. It was a challenging time for us: I was twelve or thirteen years into my business career and now found myself at Fuller, attempting to sort out this sense of "calling" to ministry that had inconveniently raised its head in my life. We felt a bit stuck--how does a person consider leaving a financially successful career and move toward an uncertain vocational future? We had one daughter in college and one in high school. There seemed to be a lot at risk. We didn't know how to take our next step, if there was one.

One night in class, Ray stopped his lecture and told a story that is probably familiar to many of Ray's students. He shared his own journey of responding to the call of God. He told of leaving the farm and coming to Pasadena to start his seminary work. He spoke of "calling" as something that described the life of all Christians. He used the term "destiny" to speak of devoting one's life to something that mattered deeply--putting one's hand to the place of the heart.

When we left class that night, we no longer questioned whether or not we would make a radical life change. It would now just be a question of God's timing. Within a year we planted a church, I left the business world and we led that church for the next ten years. It was a true experience of putting our hands to the place of our hearts.

I've reminded Ray of that a number of times. I really wanted him to know how much his work could impact someone like me in some very important areas of life. It's a mixed bag when you tell someone like Ray that their words resulted in an action that reoriented the life of an entire family. The person might feel encouraged that their work made a difference. Or, the person might feel responsible and even worried. Probably a bit of both. But I think Ray had enough confidence in God to lean more toward encouragement.

A couple of years later Emily and I audited Ray's Theology and Ecology of the Family. He taught one evening about helping people work through deep issues of forgiveness. That same week a woman came to my office in need of help in forgiving people for horrible abuses that had taken place during her childhood. I walked her through what I had learned in Ray's class and the impact on the woman was dramatic and transformative.

The next evening of our class meeting, Emily and I rushed early to the International House of Pancakes where Ray would meet with students before class. We hoped that the usual crowd of fans would be small so that we could report to Ray what had happened. When we arrived, Ray was alone--no students had joined him that evening. We had him to ourselves.

We shared the story of how his teaching on forgiveness had be played out in real life with a real person. As we offered the details, tears rolled down Ray's face. It was an expression of Ray's love for God, people, and the intersection of theology and ministry.

I will always be indebted to Ray for teaching me to love theology--not for its own sake nor as an academic abstraction, but as a living, vibrant engagement with the living God who reaches deeply into human lives to bring reconciliation and transformation. Jesus was always at the center of Ray's teachings and he helped all of us to love Jesus more. Ray's mantras, "All theology is practical theology" and, "All ministry is God's ministry" continue to echo in my head. It is an honor to pass those words on to new generations of leaders--the population of people that Ray so honored and loved.

Ray will be missed by many. He will be missed not only as theological icon but also as pastor, mentor, friend and--as he liked to put it--maverick.

We entrust our friend to our heavenly Father, on whom Ray's sights were always set.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Partisan Emails, No Prayer

I often get emails that make negative claims about our current US administration. Most come from fellow followers of Jesus. It is curious to me that I have yet to receive anything from these folks that says they are praying for the President and other national leaders. I wonder why that is? It seems to me that the kingdom of God calls us to a new way of relating to the world that transcends partisan politics.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Bartender

My book on spiritual formation and evangelism. A natural title, don't you think?

You can get it here: