Thursday, January 31, 2008

A few upcoming conferences

Next month I'll be at the National Pastors Convention in San Diego, Feb. 26-29. IVP is a cosponsor, and many of our authors are speakers and workshop leaders there, including N. T. Wright, Brenda Salter McNeil, Andy Crouch and Ruth Haley Barton. Last year at NPC I presented a few workshops on suburban stuff and had an invigorating time interacting with people from across the country. This year I'll be meeting with authors and such. If you'll be at the conference, stop by the IVP booth and say hi - I'll be hanging around.

Another conference that I have not yet decided if I'll be attending is the Asian American Leadership Conference in Fullerton, CA, March 24-26. This one also features a number of IVP authors that I've worked with, including Ken Fong, Paul Tokunaga, Nikki Toyama-Szeto and Soong-Chan Rah. Looks like a great event; I heard good things about the first AALC a few years ago. One of the conference planners, Tom Steers of the Navigators, also tipped me off to a related event, the Southeast Asian Leadership Summit, March 13-15th in Herndon, VA, hosted by Open Door Presbyterian Church, which was one of the churches profiled in IVP's Growing Healthy Asian American Churches. I'm glad that more conferences like these exist these days, and I hope that they are helpful for many.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My CT column is in print!

My first column for Christianity Today is in print! As I mentioned a few months ago, CT invited me to be a columnist this year. We've dubbed the column name as "Kingdom Sightings." The first column, "The Vision Thing," just appeared in the February issue. It's not online yet, but I'll link to it when it's available. (Update: It's now online and available here.)

What's fascinating to me with magazine writing is the time warp. When we get magazines in the mail, we have a sense that it's the latest news. But with monthly magazines, the content was likely written three or four months beforehand. I wrote my February column back in November, and a few weeks ago I sent in my April column. Of course, since I work in book publishing, I'm used to things being time delayed - I'm working with manuscript drafts now that won't be in print until fall 2008 or winter 2009. The content for "new" books is usually at least a year old by the time it hits the shelves.

At any rate, if you're a subscriber and have read the article, let me know what you think! Thanks for reading.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Happy birthday, LEGO

Google's homepage today and the Wikipedia entry alerted me to the fact that today is the 50th anniversary of the patent for the LEGO brick. And LEGOs play a large role in our household right now. Last year my older son, Josiah, got into building LEGO Star Wars kits, and we now have an armada of LEGO Star Wars vehicles in the playroom, from A-wing to X-wing. We just got several more new kits over the weekend, and we spent hours assembling them and staging little scenarios with them.

I have to say that I'm a bigger LEGO fan now than I ever was as a kid because I now look at them through the lens of being a parent. I'm thrilled to watch Josiah exercise his creativity and build things both by following instructions as well as imagining things on his own. He'll invent new spaceships and figure out how to use the right bricks to have movable wings and docking bays and whatnot. He gets a kick out of mixing and matching LEGO character pieces; he'll take a Luke or Han head and put it on a stormtrooper body and act out the scenes from Episode IV, or he'll give Leia a lightsaber and turn her into Darth Leia, Dark Jedi. I think it's significant that he plays more creatively by building his own scenes with LEGOs than he does with pre-fabricated toys and action figures.

My only ambivalence about LEGOs is that they've gotten us into this habit of consumerism by continually adding new releases. Both the Star Wars brand and the LEGO brand are tremendously strong on their own; combined, they're nearly irresistible, at least for this 6-year-old and his thirtysomething dad. Look, a new Rebel Scout Speeder! A new Imperial Dropship! But we're glad to have a constructive, developmentally engaging way to play together. Josiah has more Christmas money than he knows what to do with, and there are worse ways for him to spend it.

So happy anniversary, LEGO. Thanks for expanding our imaginations.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Much Madness Is Divinest Sense

Pilgrim Press sent me a copy of Kathleen Greider's new book Much Madness Is Divinest Sense: Wisdom in Memoirs of Soul-Suffering. Greider, professor of pastoral care and counseling at Claremont School of Theology, studied a number of memoirs and chronicles of depression, mental illness and other forms of emotional anguish. One of the books in her study was my book Grieving a Suicide, which I wrote a few years ago after losing my dad to suicide. I'm honored to have been included in the study, and I'm a little amused to be described as a "memoirist," since we pretty much avoided describing the book in that way.

It's interesting to read a book like Greider's and see what struck her about my own work and how my thoughts contributed to her analysis and conclusions. For example, in a chapter on "Healing Work," Greider picks up on my comments about the practice of lament and says,
Grieving for his father, Albert Hsu wished for something like a Christian version of the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, where lament is shared--and ameliorated. Lament was powerful for Albert as he sought healing after his father's suicide, because it felt to him to be an expression of love, some balance to the anger that was also predominant in his expression of grief. 'The agony we undergo is the score on which our love ballad is written.' Lament is a part of healing insofar as it serves as an outlet for the pain of loss that would otherwise undermine our capacity to do the work of rebuilding our lives.

. . . Sometimes cultural tradition provides us such mechanisms: as he mourned his father, Albert Hsu realized anew the comfort provided through the Chinese custom of having at the funeral and afterward in the home a prominent portrait of the deceased. Whatever their specific forms, age-old practices of lament and remembrance provide structures that help make the expression of grief life-giving and not only a reckoning with death. [pp. 240-41]
I'm grateful for Greider's work. The kinds of books in her study were of great help to me in my own grieving process, and this all reminds me again of the power of personal story and the ministry of books, that sometimes books can articulate for us what we are yet struggling to understand or express.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Men's breakfast thoughts

Our church has men's breakfasts roughly once a month, and this past Saturday we took up the topic of "What does it mean to be a (Christian) man?" A few of my random observations:

- Scripture has multiple models and examples of being a faithful godly man (as it also does of women). There isn't a particular one-size-fits-all template for manhood. Both men and women have bell curves of traits and tendencies.

- While understanding gender tendencies can be of some limited use, gender is only one factor among many, including giftedness, calling, personality, temperament, ethnic heritage, cultural background, birth order, etc. I typically find Myers-Briggs and Enneagram typologies far more helpful than simple male-female generalizations.

- One problem with current discussions of "Christian masculinity" is that they tend to focus on a fairly limited range of models. For example, John Eldredge's Wild at Heart majors primarily on the warrior archetype (with a bit of questor and lover thrown in). But there are many other legitimate and valid possibilities out there, including artisan, sage, troubador, etc. That correlates well with 1 Corinthians 12 on the many parts of the body. There's a place for the warrior, and some Christian men may well be warrior types, but certainly not all.

- Some male leaders feel like the church is too "feminized" for men and want to reclaim a more "masculine" version of the faith. But we need to remember that in historical perspective, Christianity has had a civilizing effect on barbarian men, reining in aggression and violence and instead promoting love of neighbor, peacemaking, generosity and mercy.

- Scripture also gives different correctives depending on the context. In one case, Paul told Timothy to not be so timid. But when James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven, Jesus rebuked them.

- Rather than think in terms of whether "men are protectors" or "men are decisionmakers" (which focus on doing) it's often more helpful to think about becoming men of integrity, character, faithfulness and holiness (which are more about being).

- Instead of focusing on "roles" or "expectations," I think it's more constructive to talk about calling. All of us are called to be a particular man or woman, and we must each discern our own calling based on our personality, giftedness, context and opportunities that God has given us. It might be easier to look for a template ("men should be like this or that") but that shortcircuits the hard work of discerning our own particular callings.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hitting the MAT

Last month I took the Miller Analogies Test (MAT), which not only tests analogical thinking but also general knowledge and cultural literacy in such areas as history, geography, science and literature. Here are some sample questions from the test prep book that I prepared with:

SHAWM : OBOE :: REBEC : (a. trumpet, b. clarinet, c. piano, d. violin)

THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL : THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES :: (a. Sheridan, b. Beaumont, c. Wilde, d. Behan) : MOLIERE

GUNNAR MYRDAL : (a. physics, b. economics, c. medicine, d. history) :: LINUS PAULING : CHEMISTRY

WRIGHT : FALLINGWATER :: SAARINEN : (a. Museum of Modern Art, b. Gateway Arch, c. Washington Monument, d. Golden Gate Bridge)

(a. Kilimanjaro, b. Mount Everest, c. K2, d. Makalu) : KORAKARAM :: MONT BLANC : ALPS

CALVIN CYCLE : GLUCOSE :: CELLULAR RESPIRATION : (a. sucrose, b. H2O, c. carbon, d. ATP)

(a. Balboa, b. Velasquez, c. Chevrolet, d. Cabrillo) : CALIFORNIA :: CADILLAC : MICHIGAN

FREUD : LAING :: VEBLEN : (a. Barthes, b. Keynes, c. Skinner, d. Lorenz)

The questions make me wonder - is all this expected to be general knowledge? Does the average citizen really need this info to get through daily life? Probably not. And in this age of Google and Wikipedia, how much do we actually need to hold in our heads? It's probably more important to know how to search out info than to have it in instant recall. Except when playing Trivial Pursuit, of course.

The prep book had ten practice tests, and it seemed like the more I studied, the worse my score got. But I think it was all helpful, because by comparison the actual test didn't seem as tough. It didn't have as many obscure cultural/historical references as the practice tests did. And I just got my test results: a scaled score of 486, which is in the 99th percentile. Yahoo!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Farewell to a bookseller

Yesterday afternoon Elijah and I stopped by one of my favorite local used-book stores. I hadn't been by since before Christmas, and as I pulled up, I was disappointed to see that the store was closed. That struck me as odd, because it wasn't a holiday or anything. Then I noticed a sign on the door saying that the store was closed because the owner had died last Wednesday. Visitation was Sunday afternoon, funeral Monday morning.

The proprietor, David, had been a gentlemanly fellow; I'd gotten to know him a little over the last decade of visiting his store. He was a Christian; I'd seen his book van at a local church's parking lot, and we'd chat occasionally about new books in his religion section. I was sad to hear that he was gone. I knew he was getting up in years, but he had seemed healthy. We know not our time.

In a commercial culture of big box stores and national chains, it's rare to get familiar with retail employees. You don't often see the same cashiers in the checkout lines, and employees are pretty interchangable and utilitarian - you only think of them in terms of how they might help you find an item. In our anonymous suburban culture, we don't often get to know store proprietors, except perhaps at family-owned mom-and-pop stores. There we're more likely to connect with people in our communities, especially if we become regular customers enough that we recognize one another upon return visits.

And retail bricks-and-mortar bookselling has fallen on hard times - it's difficult to compete with the online giants of the world. I have no idea how much of a margin David made on each book sale - it couldn't have been more than a few bucks at best. It's hard to imagine the amount of sales volume needed to pay the rent. But he did so valiantly, with a quirky little bookstore with piles of books all over the shelves and floor, creating a little bit of a "third place" for the local community.

I was surprised to read in David's obituary that he had a PhD in chemistry. I had no idea. He had owned and operated his bookstore for thirteen years, which is just about the same amount of time I've been living in the area. The Lisle bookstore has been an integral part of my sense of local community here in the western suburbs of Chicago.

I salute you, David, the Lisle bookstore guy. Thanks for your work and love of books. May you enjoy eternity reading books even more wondrous than those you carried in this lifetime.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Richard Mouw's positive take on spiritual consumerism and church shopping

The latest issue of Christianity Today has an article by Richard Mouw called "Spiritual Consumerism's Upside: Why church shopping may not be all bad." In it Mouw notes that while church hopping and church shopping are often frowned upon for good reasons, they also may well be entirely appropriate transition points in a person's spiritual pilgrimage. He describes a Fuller Seminary student who grew up unchurched, came to Christ in college through a parachurch ministry, attended a Presbyterian church and then came to seminary, where she is being shaped by Reformed theology while worshipping at an independent charismatic church. Now she isn't sure whether she'll end up in the PCUSA or a Vineyard or something else entirely.

Mouw comments that while many seminarians have a clear sense of denominational identity, more are like this student: "At seminary, she is confronted with a rich variety of theological options and styles of being the church. And all she can say for sure about the present stage in her journey is that the God who has surprised her several times very likely has more surprises in store. Is that 'consumerism'? Perhaps. But it also an exciting spiritual and theological quest."

I found myself resonating with this because I consider myself something of an evangelical mutt. Because my mom was a Christian and my dad was not, I found myself attending a variety of churches growing up, from Assemblies to Covenant to a Taiwanese congregation to Evangelical Free. I attended a Church of Christ/Christian Church college, got involved in ELCA Lutheran retreats, worked at a North American Baptist summer camp. I came to Wheaton for grad school and settled in a Christian & Missionary Alliance congregation for a few years. After getting married, we spent seven years in a Church of Christ/Christian Church before the ancient-future liturgical pull became irresistible and we joined our Anglican church.

The beginning of my journey was something of an eclectic hopping-ism, but by my early thirties, it was much more of an ecclesial pilgrimage that grew out of some degree of spiritual/theological maturation. Our deacon and rector are former Baptists that came to Anglicanism in their forties as a midlife sense of redirection and calling. On the other hand, many college students who have only known contemporary evangelicalism are quick to discover Anglicanism, Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I'm somewhere between the youthful exuberance/experimentation and the midlife pilgrimage, but becoming Anglican three years ago has felt like a homecoming in so many ways (most of my theological mentors and heroes have been the likes of Stott, Packer, McGrath, Wright, even going back to Lewis - all Anglican!).

Mouw also notes that Catholicism has made room for different orders and communities in a way that Protestant evangelicalism has not. A young Catholic might explore the Franciscans, Dominicans or Jesuits before sensing a call to the Benedictines. Mouw writes,
The Roman church, perhaps more than any other, has encouraged many different spiritual flowers to flourish in its ecclesial garden . . . A significant feature of the Roman Catholic pattern of spiritual shopping-around is the concept of "special vocation," which looms large in Catholic environs. A person has a special vocation to join the Jesuits or the Sisters of Charity, and this notion of an individual vocation is regularly linked to a collective vocation. In joining the Benedictines, for example, one joins a communal enterprise of living out a way of life characterized by such things as celibacy, stability, contemplation, and poverty. Other vocational communities have different callings to cultivate their own unique blends of disciplines and virtues.
I think this is markedly different than the usual evangelical experience of finding a church that "meets our needs" or choosing a church on the basis of worship style, preacher or kids' programs. I like what Mouw says about the larger collective vocation and wonder how that might apply to Protestant communities. I think it would be healthy if people joined local churches with a sense of entering into a larger tradition and vocational emphasis, whether social justice at a Methodist church or evangelism at a Bible church or whatever.

It makes sense to me that every denomination or church has its own distinctives and place in the kingdom, and I think it's good for people to explore options to find where they best align (as long as it's done with this larger corporate sense and isn't just an expression of American individualism). As Mouw concludes, "We should celebrate the diversity of our Christian landscape, manifested, for example, in the existence of Lutheranism, Vineyard Fellowships, and Stone-Campbell congregations. If such diversity encourages a consumerist approach to the spiritual quest, so be it."

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Hi from IVCF national staff conference

Happy new year! We had a good time over the holidays. Got entirely too much stuff. Different versions of Scrabble and Blokus for me and Ellen. Josiah got Lego Star Wars kits and built a Jedi starfighter and a Naboo starfighter, but more impressive was the fact that he used random bricks to build a mini B-wing fighter with wings that fold and a cockpit that swivels, just like the big B-wing. And he built a docking bay for it that opens and closes. Very cool. And Elijah got a LeapFrog phonics magnet set that identifies and pronounces letters. He put in the "H" and said and signed "hot." Then he put in a "Y" and signed "yes." So he's now able to correlate words with the letters they're spelled with! That's a pretty significant developmental milestone, and we're pretty thrilled.

Now I'm in St. Louis for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's triennial national staff conference, held in off-Urbana years. The theme this year is "I am not ashamed of the gospel," with expositions based out of the book of Romans. We started off last night with a history of InterVarsity and a walkthrough of IVCF's experience and commitment to evangelism and gospel witness in proclamation and action. It was encouraging and inspiring to think about the decades of faithful service in campus ministry and lives changed through InterVarsity staff.

We also celebrated IVP's 60th anniversary, and IV staffer and IVP author Don Everts gave a testimony about his calling both to minister to students on campus as well as to readers via his books. He talked about how both ministries require a community of fellow workers - he has staff and student partners in campus ministry, and when he is writing and revising his books, he feels the presence of IVP colaborers like his editor (me). Don's a pal, and I'm honored to be able to work with him on his books. (His most recent books are a four-book series of postmodern apologetics called the One Guy's Head series with his musings about truth, Scripture, evil and tolerance - just came in from the printer a few weeks ago.) We had a good time catching up over meals today.

Just being here is a reminder of how much I love being a part of InterVarsity and IVP. I've been running into dozens of friends and fellow staff, and it's great to hear what's going on in their various areas of the country. I'm not sure I'll have much opportunity to blog from the conference (I'm using a borrowed laptop right now) but things are going well so far and we're having fun.