Tag Archives: homework

Balance. Focus. Two things I need.

Today I asked one of the seminary professors about some of the classes that will be offered in the 2010/2011 school year.  In the course of our conversation, he said that he encourages his students to be more concerned about getting an education than getting a degree.  This is good advice.  A person can get a degree without really getting educated.

An education (*and* a degree) has been precisely what I’m after–I want to immerse myself in the subject matter, absorb it, make it my own.  I don’t want to just put out a product and be compensated for it.  I got my university degree mostly by putting out a product: the professors were the consumers, and I put out a product that met their demand.  Quite often, very little thought went into those papers–they are created for someone else’s benefit, not mine.  That is precisely not what I want to do here and now.  But I’m finding it difficult, when faced with a heavy workload, to not simply put out a product.

This semester is already overwhelming me in many ways, even though looking at my syllabi, the assignment demands aren’t all that high.  It’s the day-to-day work, the stuff that needs to be done between classes in order to understand and participate in class.  It’s the reading I have to do each week, it’s the translating and vocabulary I need to memorize (I’m way behind on my vocab–in fact, I should be doing vocab instead of writing this), it’s the daily journaling, etc.  I enjoy all of these things; all of my classes are interesting and engaging. But when I combine all the class preparation with the assignments that are due, I’m overwhelmed.  I’m trying to schedule a certain amount of time each day for the things that need doing, but I still seem to plod along and never get as much done as I had hoped and planned.

For my Theology and Practice of Christian Spirituality and Formation class I’m reading a book called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.  The next chapter in the book is about letting go of things.  I imagine this will be “things that hinder”.  And I recognize that there are some things I could cut back on.  I rarely watch TV anymore, but the internet–Oh! The wasted hours!  I need to give up being current and up-to-date on blogs and Facebook statuses.

Dixie would never think of me as a person in a hurry, but it has become apparent to me that my mind is always on the go (although I do have the knack for shutting it off when my head hits the pillow).  It’s always on something: something I want to say here, the assignments I have due, the reading I need to do, the reading I want to do, this thing, that thing.  My mind is a cluttered mess preventing me from focusing on anything, whether it’s school or prayer (or any other spiritual discipline). And I’m wondering if underneath that mess there are some things I may need to deal with, things that I am blocking out or ignoring precisely by fillin my mind with time-wasters and distractions.  These things, I suspect, can tell me things about my personality, my work ethic, how I interact with people, who I think I am, etc. etc.  How do I get through that clutter and find that…thing?

That professor I was talking to this morning said that he tells students to do whatever it takes to get an education (as opposed to just getting a degree.  We didn’t finish our conversation, but I think he meant, Take this class not that class, simply audit this class, take less classes each semester, take your time completing your degree, worry less about your grades and more about what you’re learning, etc.

In connection with this Emotionally Healthy Spirituality book , I think one thing I may have to give up is achieving.  I may have to give up (or severely restrict) my internet usage (it’s more of an addiction than an interest these days anyway).  I may have to give up some socializing, just when I actually am getting to know people with whom to socialize.

But I have a wife and children to consider.  I have a life other than me and school.  And I’m at a stage in my life where losing sleep is no longer worth handing a paper in on time.

Balance. Focus. Two things I need.

And, perhaps ironically, I think I need to start practicing Sabbath in some way or other.  I need to take time to stop and give up control and just be, whether that’s by stopping for an hour in the middle of the day just to be silent (a separate discipline, I suppose, but still a way of stopping) or actually taking a day (Saturdays, probably) to not work.

You are accepted.

The word of the day is “Hunkered”, as I have been hunkered down in a private study room in the library for most of the day.  I’m working on a paper for Christian Ethics. Actually, it’s a letter written to my church tradition (which happens to be a a mutt) as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, drawing exclusively from his Ethics. Ethics is a rather deep book–you might say it’s meaty, like a thick steak.  It’s loaded with promise, but I’ve felt like I’ve just been on the borders of understanding it for most of the semester.  My task is difficult not only because the format for this paper is unusual, but also because of the nature of this particular book and this particular theologian.

But: the coffee I made before 10a.m. this morning is still hot in the Thermos, I’ve got some soft classical music playing on BBC Radio 3, and I’m making some headway.  I think. At least, I’m beginning to fill the allotted space, which at this point in the semester, quite frankly, is all that I ask for.

And so I offer you this tasty morsel from Bohoeffer’s magnum opus:

In the [physical] body of Jesus Christ, God is united with humankind, all humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled to God. In the body of Jesus Christ, God took on the sin of the world and bore it. There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, hat has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God. Whoever perceives the body of Jesus Christ in faith can no longer speak of the world as if it were lost, as if it were separated from God; they can no longer separate themselves in clerical pride from the world. The world belongs to Christ.

…in the body of Christ [i.e. the church] all humanity is accepted, included, and borne, and that the church-community of believers is to make known to the world by word and life. This means not being separated from the world, but cfalling the world into the community of the body of Christ to which the world in truth already belongs…. The church-community is separated from the world only by this: it believes in the reality of being accepted by God–a reality that belongs to the whole world–and in affirming this as valid for itself it witnesses that it is valid for the entire world. (Ethics, p. 66-68)

You–whoever you are–are accepted by God.

The Doors of the Sea

Some of you might have noticed the question I posted on Twitter and Facebook yesterday: how do you reconcile the existence of a good God with suffering? Some of you even responded.

I asked this question out of sheer frustration with my multiple failed attempts at expressing my thoughts in response to David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? The assignment was to articulate whether or not I thought that Hart provided a satisfactory answer to the question of how we reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of evil and suffering.

Much of the first half of the book is spent undermining the various theodocies articulated by both Christians and atheists shortly after the tsunami which occurred on New Year’s Eve 2004. I won’t go into more detail than simply saying that Hart dismisses them (with arguments, mind you).  According to Hart, the only real challenge to the Christian understanding of God is provided by the character Ivan in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.

He willingly grants, he says, that all wounds will at the last be healed, all scars will disappear, all discord will vanish like a mirage…and that such will be the splendor of the finale of all things, when that universal harmony is established, that every heart will be satisfied, all anger soothed, the debt for every crime discharged, and everyone made capable of forgiving every offense and even of finding justification for everything that has ever happened to mankind; and still rejects the world that God has made, and that final harmony with it…[because] the terms of the final happiness God intends for his creatures are greater than his conscience can bear” (38-9)

And then Ivan presents his interlocutor (Alyosha) with “a grim, unremitting, remorseless recitation of stories about the torture and murder of (principally) children — true stories, as it happens, that Dostoyevski had collected from the press and from other sources” (39). Ivan’s examples are truly heartbreaking and I could not–indeed still cannot–remove them from my mind as I tried to write my response.

He tells of Turks in Bulgaria tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs with daggers, or flinging infants into the air to catch them on bayonets before their mothers’ eyes, or playing with babies held in their mothers’ arms — making them laugh, enticing them with the bright metal barrels of pistols — only then to fire the pistols into the babies’ faces. He tells the story of two parents regularly savagely flogging their seven-year-old daughter, only to be acquitted in court of any wrongdoing. He tells the story of a…couple who tortured  their five-year-old daughter with constant beatings, and who — to punish her, allegedly, for fouling her bed — filled her mouth with excrement and locker her on freezing nights in an outhouse. (39)

And then, perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all:

…he invites Alyosha to imagine that child, in the bitter chill and darkness and stench of that place, striking her breast with her tiny fist, weeping her supplications to “gentle Jesus,” begging God to release her from her misery, and then to say whether anything…could possibly be worth the brutal absurdity of that little girl’s torments (39-40).

Indeed.  Indeed.

This is the only real challenge to Christian thinking because it is a complaint that is deeply rooted in Christian thought (Dostoyevski was a man of intense faith). Hart’s final answer seems to be no answer–at least, no rational answer.  I’m fine with that.  That’s my response, too.

But before he gets there he argues for the distinction between what God wills and what God permits and how that relates to created human freedom.  God is not culpable, ultimately, in Hart’s view, and he then points us to God’s final victory–the thing Ivan believes in but ultimately rejects.

I don’t believe God is culpable either, and I, too, believe in the victory of God.

And yet, and yet, and yet…there is still that girl beating her tiny fists against her breast.  How can any response be made in the face of that image?  How can we do anything but be silent in the face of such suffering, as Hart, ironically, suggests would have been the most appropriate response to the 2004 tsunami?  My beef with Hart’s response–so far as it is one–is that no matter how you cut it, there is still that suffering little girl.

I struggled intensely with articulating my thoughts in this paper, and I think now it was because the theological and philosophical and ontological tension inherent in the question of evil had made its way into not only my head but also my heart.  While his belief that death and suffering and evil have no meaning or function in God’s economy (i.e. they are an anomaly), I was not ultimately not satisfied with Hart’s attempt at theodicy (reconciling a loving God with the existence of evil) because ever and again the image of that little girl crying and pounding her fists come to mind.  And yet I still share the same belief and hope as Hart: that God will one day make all things new.  But how to I reconcile that?

If there’s one thing I don’t have a solid grasp on in terms of faith, it’s the Christian notion of the victory of God now, rather than just at some point in the future. When Christ said on the cross, “It is finished,” he wasn’t talking about his life, but about the victory of God.  And yet evil appears to carry on apace. Again, how do we reconcile the two?  I asked this question in class today and my prof quoted Karl Barth (I think–it may have been Martin Luther), who said, “The old Adam is drowned, but the bastard keeps swimming” (that was what he said to me in private–in class he said, “the bugger”, which, depending on where you come from, is no less vulgar).  I approached him after class and asked if Barth’s statement (“the one about the swimming bugger”) wasn’t a contradiction–if he’s drowned, the bastard most certainly shouldn’t be swimming.  In response, my prof made another comparison: a chicken with its head cut off will still run around for a couple of minutes–it’s dead, but in a way it doesn’t realize it yet (or it’s in denial), so it tries to keep on with what ever it has been doing.

This made sense to me, but still isn’t satisfying. I guess I just want all suffering to stop–what sane person doesn’t?–and the fact that it hasn’t yet drives me nuts.  I don’t like that tension. But I realized that I’m a typical modern(ist?) evangelical, and my prof concurred, who likes to have everything neatly packaged and arranged and explained and spelled out.  We want answers and explanations. We want an apology (in the sense of apologetics).  There is not much place for mystery in the evangelical mind.

I was going to link to a .pdf of my paper, but it occurred to me that it won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book and there’s no need to trouble people with out-of-context ideas.  I can’t say I haven’t marvelled at not falling into total despair, perhaps even rejecting God the way Ivan does.  But I don’t think this is the obvious or natural answer to the question.  Somehow–by the grace of God, I guess–I still believe that all shall be well, while at the same time recognizing that suffering is real and that there is no appropriate response to suffering in the moment of suffering other than silence or weeping.

I guess I’ll have to learn to live with that tension for now.

November is disappearing like a fart in the wind, as they say.

I’ve always thought time appeared to move faster at a job where I’m always looking two weeks ahead.  But, now that I’ve got a second job sandwiched in between that first job, it feels like time is moving faster still.  Enough already.  It’s barely winter and already it’s almost Christmas.

My first seminary assignment is due in just over a week.  Not a lengthy assignment, but I still have a lot of reading, listening (to lectures) and thinking to do.  All the sickness and tiredness around this house isn’t helping in this respect.  Plus I have other quasi-commitments I may or may not have to keep in the mean time (hopefully not).  So, things might get quieter still around here.  (Of course, I tend to get fidgety when writing papers, so chances are I’ll find a moment or two to post something.)

In the meantime…

Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church is a fascinating account of the first several centuries of the church, but you wouldn’t expect it to be funny.  In fact, I would hazzard a guess that Henry Chadwick himself did not intend it to be funny.  Be that as it may, this sentence made me chuckle:

Gregory retired in distress to Cappadocia, where he wrote a self-pitying autobiography in iambic verse.  (p. 150)

This is the outrageous stuff of Monty Python, Woody Allen, Douglas Adams and their ilk, except that it’s history.  Hilarious.

Apostolic and Patristic (and 2000th post!)*

An interesting bit from Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church, one of the texts for the “Patristic Fathers” seminary course I am taking:

I want to emphasize the indissoluble connection that existed between the apostolic and the patristic church.  The two should indeed be distinguished, the apostolic representing the voices of those who were the first disciples and hearers of the Lord.  But far too often we take the artificial boundaries established in textbooks for purposes of clarifying the stages in church history as real divisions.  Calling the time of the apostles “apostolic” and what followed “catholic” [small-“c”] has served not only to distinguish the latter period as post-apostolic but also to depict it as a series of developments not in keeping with the original apostolic charter. . . [by this division] the apostolic reliance on the gifts and freedom of the Spirit  was transformed in into the fixing of tradition and doctrinal content known as “catholicism,” in which a “canon of faith” eclipsed the spiritual simplicity of Jesus.  But it is one thing to observe changes of development and quite another to create a disjunction.  One can point to a formation of doctrinal tradition in the earliest apostolic writings and dependency upon the Spirit’s leading in later patristic texts.  A strict delineation between the apostolic and the patristic is no more than a theoretical construct that fails at integrating the historical evidence.  The manual of Christian practice and worship known as the Didache originated in the area of northern Syria, as did the Gospel of Matthew, and was produced within a generation or less of the Gospel.  First Clement was written, just like Revelation, in the mid 90s of the first century.  Yet one was eventually regarded as apostolic and the other patristic.  The reasons for this distinction are not always apparent, underscored by the evidence that 1 Clement and the Didache were regarded as Scripture (as were some other patristic works) by certain churches.  The distinctions we so readily make today between the apostolic  and patristic were not clear to the Christians who were living in those times. (pp. 52-3)

Still with me?  I bet I lost 95% of you or more.  Anyway, interesting stuff.  Here’s the nutshell version: historically, there is no clear division between the apostolic age (that is, the age  of those who were direct disciples of Jesus, or at least taught by an direct disciple) and the apostolic age (the age of the direct successors of the apostles) and therefore no basis on which to say former age was purer period of the church than the latter.

(I admit you came to mind as I read this, Toni, and your comment here—though now that I’ve read the comment again, it only marginally relates.  🙂 )


*I never imagined that my 2000th post would be such a dull one.

Week the second

I’ve been wearing my Cross Mr. Grumpy Face (Adrian Plass) for a couple of days, due to a combination of fatigue, stress, and being fed-up with the kids’ behaviour (and each cause accelerates the next).  For a while I felt like I had been yelling at the kids for two days straight.  However, I received some good news today, which lightened my load and thereby my stress considerably.  The news is this: I can choose which seminary assignment is due at the end of November.  I was under the impression that the lecture/reading/questions portion of the course was due then.  After putting together a schedule I realized that I would be spending most of my spare time for the next month on that assignment in order to finish it on time.  Now I can read one of the other textbooks and do a short reflective/critical paper on it or do a word study on a series of Greek terms.  Both of those feel much more manageable.

I’ve been adjusting to the my new work arrangements.  I recognized that I needed to take some time in the mornings at the church to decompress, which this morning consisted of reading the Psalter and a little prayer (all legitimate work, folks!).  I’m a fidgety person at the best of times and combined with the go-get-’em pace at the law office I find that at the church I constantly feel like moving on to something other than what I’m doing at the moment.  The pacing is so different.

Spent some time visiting people today, which was nice.  “Visiting people”.  “Visitation” sounds more official.  Visitation was probably my biggest fear about working at/for the church, but it has gone well so far.  I was told to just be myself, not try to be pastorly and that seems to work.  Everything else just happens.

Part of my concern with visitation was that many shut-ins wouldn’t know me from a hole in the wall.  And vice-versa.  The other concern was that they would think that I was only visiting them because I’m paid to do so.  I suppose that’s true in a sense, but I don’t like the negative spin there; it’s true in the sense that my position at the church gives me the time and freedom to do that sort of thing.  And I’ve enjoyed it so far.

I’ve mentioned before (maybe not here) that it’s a shame that our church building sits empty most of the time.  Since starting my time at the church, this has become more pronounced: just me in a several thousand square foot office—or, rather, just me in a moderately-sized room inside a gigantic unused space.  In general it only gets used a couple of mornings per week.  It’s a great space, but it’s a shame to put so many resources into a mostly unused building.  It’d be nice to fill its halls and rooms on a daily basis somehow.

That’s the news from Prince Albert, where the Tim Hortons’ are slow, a diamond mine may or may not be a pipe dream, and the number of dollar stores per capita is well above average.

You want to hear about my homework? You got it!

I read a book on early church history a year or two ago, so in a generally sense much of what I’ve been reading has been familiar. A couple things stand out for me so far, but I’ll mention two:

1. It seems that the early church was pacifistic.  Even if they didn’t have a worked-out theology about, in practice the early Christians did not become involved with the ruling Roman military.  I’m not sure if soldiers were required to make some kind of sacrifice to the emperor or something else which may have precluded Christians from participating, or if it was simply a matter of “Do not kill”.

In fact—and this one has had me thinking since the first book I read—the Christians of the time didn’t seem to participate in much of anything (such as gladiator events [too violent perhaps] and other Roman games).  Makes me think again about how fully participatory most Christians tend to be in our culture.  There’s probably more to the early church’s abstaining than is explained in the course work—especially considering that for the Romans religion and culture and the state where tightly enmeshed (Caesar was considered divine).  But in some respects, religion and culture and state are enmeshed in our day, too (consumerism, materialism, etc.)

2. At points during the 200 years or so persecution the church faced under the Romans, Roman soldiers had the right to accost Christians as they were leaving their places of worship, place a sword against a Christian’s neck and ask “Is Christ Lord?”.  The “right” answer (for the soldier) would be, “Caeasar is lord.”  Answer incorrectly, and the soldier was within his rights to thrust the sword and kill that person.

Scary.  I’m honestly not sure how I’d answer in a similar situation.  I’d like to think I’d answer the soldier “incorrectly” (but correctly as a confessing Christian), but modern Western Christians like myself don’t have the foggiest idea what persecution is like.  The early Church was illegal in the Roman world pretty much from the get-go and anyone who became a follower of the Christ at the time was doing so during a time of persecution.  So for many of them, being confronted by a sword-weilding soldier was expected (though still a difficult situation).  But we in the modern west have lived our lives of faith in comfort and general acceptance.  What would happen to the church if the situation changed?

First day

Finished my first day working at/for the church here.  Pretty uneventful, but it was good.

First things first:

1. First thing I did: check phone messages.  There was one.

2. First phone call received: shortly after I checked messages, the phone rang for the first time.  It went as follows:


Me: Gateway Covenant Church.

On phone: *boat horn* “You could win two free passes to the Bahamas!  Just by…”

Me: *click*

3. First legitimate phone call received: Phil.

4. First visitor: Gavin.

It was a good day.  I spent a bit of time orienting myself and may have some more self-orienting to do tomorrow.  It will take some time to figure out how to balance two very different part-time jobs.  For the last six or so years I’ve been working at a job where efficiency and speed are paramount and where my job is laid out very specifically—there’s little room for flexibility in the work day.  The job at the church is in many respects not at all about being efficient or fast, and the job is more-or-less self-directed (within some basic expectations).  At some point soon I will have to stop asking people what I need to do and just start doing things.

It feels like a good fit.  Of course, it’s only the first day and I haven’t (and possibly won’t) face some of the difficulties someone in full-time church ministry faces.

On a somewhat related note, I am realizing tonight how much work I have to do for the Patristic Fathers course in the next month.  The first assignment is due on November 24.  It’s the only assignment with a set due date (other than the completion date of the course, which includes all the rest of the assignments), which is done to get the student working without delay.  The assignment shouldn’t be particularly difficult, but it will be time-consuming.  I have to listen to 24 40-minute lectures, read 3 books and answer a series of questions for each lecture/book chapter, all in the next month.

It’s certainly do-able, but right now it feels like it will take up much of any spare time remaining after home and familial responsibilities and other obligations.  In fact, I shouldn’t be blogging right now.  It occurred to me tonight that perhaps a blogging hiatus is in order.  We shall see.