Monday, April 30, 2007

In memory of Robert E. Webber, 1933-2007

Last Friday afternoon Bob Webber died of pancreatic cancer. Both my wife and I studied under Bob. I took several classes from him while at Wheaton Grad School in the mid-90s, and then Ellen did a MA in Worship & Spirituality with him at Northern Seminary in the early 2000s. Bob was a visionary and a maverick, and students loved him or didn't. It was said that Bob just had one class that he reconfigured multiple ways, whether as Historical Theology or Christian Traditions or Theology of Worship or whatever. No matter the class, he always led us through the various stages of church history - patristic, medieval, reformation, modern, postmodern. He always wanted us to see the full sweep of our Christian heritage and bring us back to the experience and practice of the early church.

He was a champion of all things worship, editing the massive The Complete Library of Christian Worship and penning dozens of books on the topic. He launched the ancient-future movement of contemporary evangelicals rediscovering the riches of history and liturgy. Years ago he wrote Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, which chronicled how American evangelicals were discovering Anglicanism. In my own Anglican congregation, many folks have shared how they became Anglicans through Webber's influence.

Here's my favorite Bob Webber story. Every year in various classes, when talking about the history of evangelicalism, he would describe the evangelistic preaching methods of folks like Billy Sunday. He would launch into full evangelistic preacher mode, with dramatic heights of oration and convicting language. And to cap it all off, he would leap onto the desk at the front of the classroom and stand on top of it, bellowing at the top of his lungs, exhorting sinners to come to Jesus.

Well, in 1995 or so, in one of the classes I was sitting in, Bob worked himself up into a frenzy and launched himself above the table. But his shoes were slippery or something, and he lost his footing. He crashed to the floor, flat on his back. The class was aghast, shocked into silence, all of us wondering, "Was that supposed to happen? Was that part of the act?"

After a beat or two, Bob jumped back up and said, "I'm okay! I'm okay!" Then he more carefully climbed up onto the table and finished his spiel, to much applause and relief.

Bob was always a recovering fundamentalist. He would tell stories of his days at Bob Jones University, where he was called "Hollywood Bob" by the irked administration. Bob was allergic to all things modernist, and said that Enlightenment rationalism had so compromised the Christian faith that the postmodern turn and skepticism toward modernity was the best thing to come along in centuries. I remember challenging him in class on this point; my sense was that the genius of Christianity was that it was true and relevant no matter the era, that Christianity is rational and thus can be contextualized to a modernist era, just as it is also experiential and thus can be contextualized and relevant to a postmodern era. Bob didn't quite buy that, but I think his fundamentalist upbringing just made him incapable of accepting that any good could come of modernist forms of Christianity.

Bob, we'll miss you. You were always uneasy with the evangelical subculture, but evangelicalism is better for having had you with us.

Emerging Anglican posted these prayers in honor of Bob:

REMEMBER thy servant Bob Webber, O Lord, according to the favour which thou bearest unto thy people, and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, he may go from strength to strength, in the life of perfect service, in thy heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

O ALMIGHTY God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, who by a voice from heaven didst proclaim, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; Multiply, we beseech thee, to those who rest in Jesus, the manifold blessings of thy love, that the good work which thou didst begin in them may be perfected unto the day of Jesus Christ. And of thy mercy, O heavenly Father, vouchsafe that we, who now serve thee here on earth, may at last, together with them, be found meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; for the sake of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thinking bloggers and thinking about blogs

I've been awarded the Thinking Blogger Award not once, but twice! Thanks much to my colleague Craver VII as well as to Australian Simply Simon (from whom I learned that many of the issues facing North American suburbia are also present in Australia as well). Thanks, guys. I appreciate the affirmation, and I hope my blog posts live up to your praise.

Now I'm supposed to name five blogs that likewise make me think. Alas, how can I limit my choices to just five? This is actually why I don't list everything I read on my blogroll - I don't want to leave folks out, and I also don't want to have a list that goes on for pages (like my bookmarks). For that reason, for now, at least, my links list is very limited. Of course, I link to our family blog, Team Hsu, which my wife has recently claimed as her primary blogging domain. See her observations on disorderly spiritual disciplines, how many jeans people own and what body image looks like in other cultures. The only other personal blogs I link to are Loud Time and Strangely Dim by my pal Dave Zimmerman, who shares an office wall with me. He was blogging long before I entered the fray, and he's always been a good friend and colleague, so I've linked to him from the start. (I often use his Loud Time blogroll to hop to blogs I like to visit.)

Let me also highlight IVP's new corporate blogs, which just launched a few weeks ago. I contribute to Behind the Books, which gives behind-the-scenes thoughts and commentary related to the IVP Books publishing program. See my recent posts there about spiritual formation and the top eight reasons people buy books. We also have the Addenda & Errata blog for our IVP Academic line, as well as Andy Unedited, with thoughts about publishing from our editorial director, Andy Le Peau (whom I edited for his book, Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength., an anecdotal history of IVP).

So anyway, if I have to pick five blogs to commend for making me think:

1. I think the gold standard of thoughtful Christian blogging is Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed. Vital contributions to discussions on theology, biblical studies, the emergent church and much more. He's created an amazing go-to community for evangelical discourse and dialogue. I don't know how he manages to blog so much and so well on such a wide breadth of topics and issues. All the rest of us pale in comparison.

2. Jenell Williams Paris's The Paris Project is a favorite stop for me. Jenell and I knew each other way back in high school in the '80s, when we faced each other in our high school debate league and got to know each other at debate camp. (Yes, we are such geeks.) We reconnected in the '90s through the late, great Regeneration Quarterly and The Vine. She's an anthropology professor and always has astute observations about the academy, society, evangelical culture, motherhood and life in general. She just got a new job at Messiah College and also gave birth to Max - congrats, Jenell!

3. Helen Lee's Typical American Mom. Helen used to be on InterVarsity staff and worked at Christianity Today. I've intersected with her at various Asian American gatherings over the years and worked with her on her edited book Growing Healthy Asian American Churches. She recently had a series of thoughtful posts reflecting on the Virginia Tech shooting and its implications for the Korean American and Asian American communities.

4. Jana Riess is the religion reviews editor for Publishers Weekly, and her personal blog is The Review Revolution. We've been publishing industry friends for some years now, and she has some of the most insightful observations about religion publishing trends and the good, the bad and the ugly of book publishing. She recently posted a scathing review of The Secret, and awhile back wrote this hilarious rip on Biblezines.

5. A relative newcomer to the blogosphere is a colleague who is known in the office as Rebecca but otherwise known as Becky in the rest of her life. Her blog Please pass the cheese (I still have no idea what that means) wrestles with various topics of Christian life and discipleship, including women's ministries at her church and generosity and grace. She also posted an original unpublished Mark Noll poem "Scots' form in the suburbs" that was written for their church - a very moving picture of the power of the Eucharist in the lives of suburban people.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 blog tour

I've mentioned previously on this blog that I've written articles for, a website dedicated to helping Christians integrate their faith and their daily work. The site just recently relaunched, and editor Marcus Goodyear invited me to be part of their blog tour. So let me encourage you to visit their site and explore the articles, Bible studies and other resources they have available there. They have material by all sorts of folks: theologians Darrell Guder and Bill Dyrness, spirituality writers Eugene Peterson and Emilie Griffin, biblical scholar and Jesus Creed blogger Scot McKnight, Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw, literary writers Luci Shaw, James Schaap and Virginia Stem Owens, worship guru Robb Redman and Asian American chick lit author Camy Tang. A wide breadth of thoughtful people from various fields and disciplines - something for everyone.

Here's an excerpt of my most recent article there, "The 'I' in 'Community,'" in which I muse about the role of the individual in team settings:
On the one hand, there's the danger of elevating the group to the exclusion of the individual. This error tells individuals they are unimportant and interchangeable, replaceable and disposable, like cogs in a machine. On the other hand, teams can be derailed by strong individual personalities asserting their own self-importance. Star performers sometimes use a team merely as a vehicle for their own success.

The answer is to balance both individual and corporate identities. We see examples of this in the ministry of Paul. He did not go on missionary journeys alone if he could avoid it. Paul's standard operating procedure was to work in partnership, with Barnabas or Silas, or in a larger community, with people like Luke, Priscilla, Aquila, Timothy, Sopater, and Gaius. These colleagues were Paul's coworkers in their daily efforts and often his collaborators and cowriters in his letters. Paul mentored them in community, and then sent them on individual assignments, going places Paul could not go himself. For example, Timothy served as Paul's emissary to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 3:2), Phoebe delivered the epistle to the Romans (Rom. 16:1), and Titus was asked to troubleshoot in Crete (Titus 1:5). The strength of Paul's working community meant that his team members were well-qualified and equipped to take on their individual challenges.

The ultimate model for us is the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is simultaneously community and individuality. The Father sent the Son to do very specific individual tasks, and likewise the Spirit empowers us in ways that the Father and the Son do not. God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. God works as both community and individuals. Since we are created in God's image, we also work as individuals and in community. . . .
Go here to read the rest. Also, the following bloggers are also participating in this blog tour this week. Enjoy!

Gordon Atkinson, L. L. Barkat, Gina Conroy, Craver VII, CREEations, Milton Brasher-Cunningham, Mary DeMuth, Karl Edwards, Emdashery, Every Square Inch, Green Inventions, Amy Goodyear, Marcus Goodyear, Al Hsu, Jennwith2ns, Charles Foster Johnson, Mike McLoughlin, Eve Nielsen, Naked Pastor, Ramblin Dan, Charity Singleton, Stacy, Camy Tang, Writer… Interrupted

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bottled water as a Christian stewardship issue

The topic of bottled water has come up several times in the past few months. I first read a Christian Century article that talked about how various Christian groups are now campaigning against bottled watter on moral grounds, that water should be freely accessible and not restricted to those who can afford it. Here's an excerpt:
In the developing world, Carmichael said, water is being sold as a commodity where the resource is scarce. On the rationale that bottling water takes water resources away from the poor, the environmental issue has become an important one for people of faith, Carmichael said. "The moral call for us is not to privatize water. Water should be free for all."

. . . The U.S. leads the world in bottled-water consumption. . . . At the same time, one-third of the world's population lives in water-stressed conditions. That proportion will double by 2025, according to a 2006 United Nations report on water scarcity. Water is scarcest in arid developing countries plagued by drought and pollution, such as South Africa, where agriculture fuels demand.
Then Ed Gilbreath's blog mentioned that
our capitalism has become more about creating new markets by manufacturing artificial needs. And one of these “manufactured needs,” he contends, is the $10 billion bottled water industry. Sadly, hardly any of that money makes its way to Third World countries that don’t have the luxury of unpolluted water out of a faucet.
And then the Chicago Sun-Times reported:
It takes 1.5 million barrels of oil -- enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year -- to make the plastic bottles to meet Americans' demand for bottled water, according to the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., environmental think tank.

The kind of plastic most commonly used for water bottles -- polyethylene terephthalate, or PET -- is recyclable. But consumers recycle just one of every five bottles they drink, with the rest ending up in landfills, said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington group that promotes recycling.
And bottled water is not significantly better for you than tap water. In fact, it may be worse for you, since there are no regulations or standards for how bottled water should be filtered or free of pathogens, whereas tap water is well-regulated. The Sun-Times reports, "The NRDC tested more than 100 types of bottled water and found 'spotty' quality, with a third of the brands containing contaminants such as arsenic in at least some samples, said Adrianna Quintero, an attorney for the group. 'The problem with bottled water is we really have no way of knowing what we're getting,' Quintero said."

As a result of all this, I've been persuaded that this is an issue that Christians should be concerned about. Sure, it's better to drink bottled water than soft drinks. But the commoditization of water is creating an unnecessary consumer product, and evidently the bottled water industry is not doing much to provide increased access to clean water in disadvantaged areas of the world.

So if you drink bottled water, please recycle your bottles. Better yet, just fill a reusable bottle with tap water. Save the money you would otherwise spend on bottled water and direct it in ways more beneficial for people in need of clean water.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wheaton Theology Conference: Tony Jones, the strike zone and the emergent conversation

At the Wheaton Theology Conference, Emergent Village's Tony Jones gave an evening plenary presentation about hermeneutics and orthodoxy. His main premise was that "orthodoxy is an event," not something that can be distilled into a creedal formulation or a statement of faith. Jones argued against the workability of the Vincentian canon of believing "that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all," saying that virtually nothing meets that standard. He used the analogy of baseball's strike zone to argue that in praxis, the de facto strike zone is never what baseball's official rules say that it should be - instead, it tends to float low and outside. Jones argued that despite the dissonance between theory and practice, the community of baseball players, umpires and fans create a strike zone that is workable in day-to-day play.

During Q&A, however, several questioners pressed Jones to answer, "How can I know if something is in the strike zone or not?" And Jones was rather evasive on this point. He wouldn't commit himself to saying what determines the strike zone. (I thought this would have been a nice place to suggest the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.) So even as Jones refuted charges of relativism, he still left the audience wondering what would actually qualify as orthodoxy, whether the Nicene creed or the Trinity or the canon of Scripture.

Now, I'm certainly not a rabid anti-Emergent type. And Jones's talk was helpful in understanding why Emergent has been notoriously difficult to pin down on certain things - they have resisted writing their own "statement of faith" because they say that all such statements are imperfect, imprecise (and even misleading) documents. But while I appreciate Jones's observation about the flexibility of praxis, I think his overall model for understanding orthodoxy is ultimately self-defeating. Even if we concede the metaphor of a flexible strike zone that is regulated by the community, a baseball game can't be played unless certain norms are defined. A pop fly lands either fair or foul. A runner is safe or out. So, yes, there is a certain degree of flexibility and ambiguity in Christian life, doctrine and praxis. But some things simply must be defined as orthodox or unorthodox, whether bodily resurrection or trinitarian Godhead or whatnot.

Instead of deconstructing the Vincentian formula, I think it would have been more constructive to explore the variously attributed phrase, "In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things, charity." I think this accounts for a flexible strike zone of nonessentials that Christians continue to disagree over (predestination vs. free will, church polity, millennial positions, etc.) and baseline essentials that constitute orthodoxy ("We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . ."). The challenge, of course, is that what one group holds as essential is deemed nonessential by others. Even so, having these categories feels more helpful to me than a claim that lack of consensus on some things means no consensus on anything.

What was interesting was that the audience's response to Jones's presentation was either love it or hate it. Many folks were nodding along in affirmation, while others were shaking their heads and groaning aloud. I chatted with several theologians afterward who felt that the talk had been a disaster, that Jones shouldn't even have been invited. (Jones himself admitted his ambivalence about presenting there.) But my own take is that I'm glad Jones presented, because the professional theologians need to hear firsthand the kinds of issues that are being discussed in the emergent conversation. If folks don't like what Jones is saying, then it's not enough to critique him or dismiss him out of hand - they need to engage the conversation and contribute to the dialogue in ways that are both faithful to the tradition but also can be received by the various communities. All hermeneutics are local, says Jones - and so is all theological discussion and dialogue. So let the conversation continue.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Praying for Virginia Tech

I've been sitting here reading news reports and blog accounts of yesterday's shootings at Virginia Tech, and like after Columbine or 9/11, I've been rather immobilized. It's just bizarre that we can read blogs by students who were there, or victims' MySpace pages. I just read a post from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship that includes some prayer requests that come directly from the IV chapter at Virginia Tech:

After the campus was opened up and declared safe, Wes and fellow staff members Lindsey Jones and Robert Howe concentrated on being available to the students who were still in shock from the events. “We walked around campus all afternoon, comforting people.”

Facing the inevitable “Where is God?” questions that are posed after tragedies like this, Wes says, “God is comforting those who mourn. There’s a lot of love on the campus right now.”

He’s mobilizing a group of students to get out and minister to other students. “We want to go around and offer our ear and our comfort to anyone who’s still left on campus,” he says. “I am deeply encouraged by the love and comfort that our students give to each other and their friends. The Body of Christ is truly at work here.” Wes says the InterVarsity chapter has some specific prayer requests:

  • Pray for the body of Christ, through the churches and campus ministries, to be united in expressing the hope we have in God.
  • One freshman involved in the fellowship lost a roommate who was killed in the shooting.
  • One student in the fellowship overslept and missed his class in Norris Hall during the shootings. He lost his professor, and four of his classmates were wounded.
  • One senior in the fellowship was in a classroom in Norris Hall during the shootings. With the help of some classmates, he set up a barricade to prevent the shooter from entering the room. The shooter fired shots at the door, but failed to enter.
  • One junior in the fellowship is a resident advisor in West Ambler Johnston Hall. She was a good friend to one of the victims who was murdered in the residence hall. The victim was a fellow resident advisor.

Many students left campus right after the shootings, but others remain. Wes and the staff of other campus ministries are preparing for a Wednesday mid-day memorial service. “After an intense and painful day, we are in mourning,” he says. “Thank you for your prayers and for sharing in our pain.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Wheaton Theology Conference: How the early church grew

This past week was the annual Wheaton Theology Conference, cosponsored by InterVarsity Press. This year's theme was "Ancient Faith for the Church's Future," exploring how the early church's theology and praxis intersects with our contemporary context.

One session that I found particularly interesting was presented by Alan Kreider of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, who talked about the early church's approach to evangelism. In summary, the early church was not actually very "evangelistic" by our terms. The patristic literature did not emphasize the Great Commission. They didn't have official evangelists, missionaries or mission boards. They did not have exhortations to evangelism (though they had exhortations to martyrdom!). They did not have prayers for the conversion of pagans, though they had prayers asking for God's help to love their pagan neighbors and enemies. And in certain eras, church worship was actually closed to visitors, with deacons at the door serving as bouncers, restricting entrance to the unbaptized. Not the most seeker-sensitive approach to ministry!

And yet the early church grew and grew and grew, even without intentional evangelistic strategy or ministry. How? By being the most attractive community in the Roman Empire. The early Christians rescued abandoned babies and raised them as their own. They gave dignified burials to all, regardless of economic status. They cared for the sick; instead of abandoning the cities in times of plague, they stayed and cared for the sick and dying, even if it meant their own deaths. It was said of the early Christians that "they alone know the right way to live."

It wasn't until after Constantine that conversion became a matter of advantage rather than attraction, or eventually by compulsion. Only after Constantine did people reject the church on moral and ethical grounds and begin to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. Prior to that, the church was known as the people of compassion, love and peace.

It was interesting to ponder how the church could recover that kind of pre-Constantinian attractiveness in our post-Constantinian, post-Christian, postmodern context. For those of us who have struggled with being "evangelistic," it's encouraging to know that the early church grew not because they were distributing gospel tracts but because they were practicing hospitality, neighborliness and social concern for the poor and marginalized. That still seems to me to be a prophetic countercultural stance in today's context.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Discussing suburbia

Bloggers L.L. Barkat and Charity Singleton are blogging about The Suburban Christian, and they've posted some thoughts relating to the intro and chapter 1. L.L is subfused (by which she means that she is confused about the meaning of suburban) while Charity is calling herself a subruralurbanite.

It's interesting that both of them find themselves in contexts where the lines between urban and suburban are blurring; what's true of L.L. in New York and Charity in Indianapolis seems to be true nationwide. New suburbs (exurbs, edge cities, etc.) are becoming new cities, while old suburbs are becoming old cities. Cities are becoming more suburban in form, and suburbs are becoming more urban. And even small towns and rural areas are suburbanizing.

(BTW, the fact that suburbia is confusing popped up yesterday. I was at my local library picking up several dozen books that had come in, and the librarian recognized me and asked me about my own writing. I explained that I had written books about suburbia, grief and singleness and was starting to tell her a little about each, and she said, "Now, that's part of the former Yugoslavia, right?" I gave her a blank look. She clarified, "Serbia? You wrote about Serbia?" Serbia, suburbia, whatever. Now, suburbia in Serbia, that would be a topic. :-)

If you'd like to join in on these discussions but don't have a copy of the book, the intro and chapter 1 are both available online as free PDFs here. I'm curious - what kinds of contexts do you find yourself in? Suburban, urban, rural, or some sort of hybrid of them all? If you have migrated from one kind of context to another, what characteristics or traits do you see as different from one to the other?

Monday, April 09, 2007

He is risen indeed!

I have to say that my Lent was not as disciplined as I had hoped. I was planning on cutting back on time in the blogosphere and giving up eBay and library reserves so I would have more time to read particular books that had been sitting for a while. Alas, during Lent several blog controversies erupted that I just had to follow online. While I refrained from selling on eBay, I did make several purchases, due to the release of a new wave of gaming pieces that I collect. And I didn't read all the books I had hoped to read, though I did get through quite a few. (I also now have a huge backlog of reserves at the library - over 100 items, with several dozen awaiting me or in transit already.)

I also have to say that Holy Week was a little exhausting, both physically and emotionally. After services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Saturday vigil and Easter morning, I was pretty beat and also experiencing emotional whiplash. (It was also my younger son's 2nd birthday yesterday as well, so we had a combined Easter/birthday dinner with family.) As an Enneagram Seven, I realized anew that Good Friday in particular is a challenge for me. My inclination is to want to have fun and to take joy in life, but Good Friday means that I need to recognize the gravity of Christ's suffering, pain and death, as well as the suffering of the world around us.

So after this Lenten season of refraining from "alleluias," it was a joy to be able to celebrate and declare, "Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!" It is certainly true that we don't fully appreciate the joy of the resurrection without walking through the crucifixion first. At the National Pastors Convention a few months ago, Lauren Winner made a passing remark about how our society tends to deny or minimize death, so we don't really understand how significant the Christian claim of resurrection and new life is.

Ellen and I have been pleased to see how our older son has been engaging the Lenten/Easter journey. We had a Lent banner with readings and felt ornaments each night, and our bedtime Bible story book just "happened" to be timed perfectly for Holy Week and Easter, with stories falling on just the right days, even though we hadn't planned it that way in advance. Josiah really seems to be grasping the uniqueness of the Christian story, that Jesus triumphed over death in a way different from Obi-Wan Kenobi's postmortem appearances in Star Wars.

(Side note: One of our friends from church, Michelle, has started babysitting for us, and Josiah is enamored with her. Just before our Saturday evening Easter vigil service, Josiah told me, "I like Jesus more than anyone." I said, "That's great." Then he said, "But I like Michelle more than Jesus." Oh, boy.)

At any rate, I'm so glad that we are now on this side of the resurrection, both in this particular church year as well as in salvation history in general. And I'm thrilled that our five-year-old can exult with us, "He's risen!" He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A $100 project update

[This is an entry my wife posted on our family blog.]

Awhile ago Al blogged about the $100 project and invited people to join in and blog about their experience. I usually try not to talk about my charitable giving. If I hear Al mention a charitable gift we have given, even in passing, I usually elbow him and mutter "right hand, left hand!" (a reference to Mt 6:3). So, blogging about what I did for the $100 project feels a little awkward. And yet, for some reason, it also feels important to join in the project and to share my experience with others.

When Al first posted his $100 project blog, I assumed that his $100 counted as mine too. We're married and most of our charitable giving is done in both of our names. So I figured I would help Al decide what we should do with our $100 and that would be all. Then I received a $100 honorarium for leading worship at a retreat. I starting to think about how I could spend the money. I could buy more stamps and other card making supplies, or I could use it towards an anniversary gift for Al... And then a quiet whisper, "You know, its $100. Remember Al's blog. You could give it away."

My first response was not very nice. "Give it away!? But this is one of the few times I earn extra money that I can justify spending on me." I didn't have any immediate opportunities to spend the money anyway, so I put it aside and started to pray about it. I didn't pray particularly often or very fervently, but I did ask God what I should do with the money. Should I give it to an organization or should I find a more personal way to give the money to someone in need? Should I use it to help poor people, people with disabilities, or something else? Was giving to an organization instead of finding something local and more personal a cop-out?

Then I began to notice that one organization was coming to my attention more frequently than usual. While reviewing a video for work, I saw a segment about International Justice Mission (IJM). Shortly after that I read a brief news blurb about a successful mission that IJM accomplished in freeing children who were enslaved in the sex industry. I am familiar with IJM because the publisher I work for publishes Good News About Injustice by Gary Haugen, the president and CEO of IJM. I had also heard someone from IJM speak at the Urbana 06 Student Missions Convention. Finally, last week Al was reading Terrify No More, a book documenting the events leading up to, and surrounding, IJM’s raids in the notorious Cambodian village of Svay Pak where their workers rescued 37 underage victims of sex trafficking, many of them under the age of 10. I read a few chapters before we had to return the book to the library and made my decision.

Since the work of IJM includes a few different areas that I am particularly concerned about (injustice, children in need, slavery, sex trafficking) and since IJM seems to be coming to my attention more frequently than usual (something God often uses to catch my attention), I decided to give my $100 to them. I imagine that $100 is a small amount for IJM in comparison to what they need, but I hope God will use my small gift to help rescue people who are experiencing injustice and help on their journey to find hope and healing.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Lisa McMinn review of The Suburban Christian

Last year I blogged about sociologist Lisa McMinn's excellent new book The Contented Soul, and just this morning I stumbled across her review of The Suburban Christian. I have no idea when this review came out or how long it's been available, so maybe it's old news, but here's part of it:

Hsu’s message is an important one, and he is a good person to give it. Hsu has a balanced appreciation for and caution about the suburbs. Christian suburbanites need, after all, more than my cry to “flee, flee while you can!” I was particularly humbled and challenged by his reminder that the suburbs are here to stay, and that we need Christians to bring something of the light of Christ to the darkness within the suburbs every bit as much as we need Christians in the city, or in rural communities, to do the same. Besides, there is power in the suburbs—money, commerce, economic and political clout. And we do need Christians to actively channel that power toward good ends that impact people far outside of the suburbs.

Hsu wisely and carefully challenges ways Christians can be more intentional about how they live and think about life in the suburbs. His tone is vulnerable and inviting, educational, and punctuated nicely with personal illustrations. He talks about the individualism of the suburbs—the loss of community and even of a sense of neighborliness because suburbanites tend to spend so much time commuting, consuming activities and things, or shutting themselves up in their air conditioned homes. Suburbanites drive to go to work, to worship, for their entertainment, and to shop. Even if they wanted to walk, the streets are not usually conducive to it. In every chapter Hsu offers some practical steps suburbanites can take to minimize the negative characteristic he has just discussed. Occasionally these seem trite—not particularly helpful except to offer readers something to do. Other times his recommendations are substantial, offering readers significant suggestions for how they can live in more Christlike ways in the suburbs, that is, in ways that pursue justice and mercy.

In Hsu’s discussion about consumerism, he talks about how distant consumers have become from the producer of our various goods: the farmer and the food we eat, the seamstress and the clothes we wear. He calls us to a more conscientious consumption, one that requires us to become better informed about where products come from and the exploitive practices under which they are made—knowledge that encourages us to choose to consume locally when we can, and that counters the entitlement mentality that blurs the line between what we need and what we want. Hsu’s topics include product branding, megachurches, and attempts to create community at places like Starbucks (which is a gathering place of sorts—filling a gap left with the absence of other civic gathering places—but which is still, after all, primarily a place of consumption).

He also addresses challenges to the spiritual life. People in the suburbs seldom experience scarcity and that makes us less likely to depend on God for provision. This shapes how we think about ourselves in relation to God and others. We can escape most struggles and hardship, and we can develop an indifference toward God as our provider, protector, and sustainer. Hsu invites readers to create space for God, to rediscover or learn how to sense God’s presence, and to remember our place in God’s created order. He reminds us that we are part of an interconnected whole that includes urban, suburban, and rural communities, and also global communities.

The Suburban Christian is inspiring and hopeful, even as it also challenges assumptions and raises awareness of some of the pitfalls of suburban life. I recommend it particularly to those residing in the suburbs, though much of what he says also applies to those of us living in small towns and urban areas.

P.S. I also just came across this brief snippet from Evangelicals for Social Action: "Albert Y. Hsu, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006). This book is for two kinds of people. The first is for the Christian who lives in the suburbs but who desires to be a player in God’s agenda in the city. The second is for the Christian who lives in the city and who tends to err on the side of thinking that urban spirituality and ministry are superior to the suburban. While this book calls suburbanites to live responsibly, it more importantly minimizes urban versus suburban scenarios and calls for interdependence in ministry."