Saturday, February 06, 2016

Cultural Hooks

The Acura NSX ad hit my Twitter feed this week. In the commercial a car is crafted to the soundtrack of David Lee Roth shouting and screaming, music building with percussion, and finally Eddie Van Halen’s signature guitar. It’s the intro to Running with the Devil, a big hit from the late 70’s.

The curious twist is when the song is really kicking off, the words “What he said” appear on the screen. No lyrics are every sung. The message is clear (at least for me), if you buy this car you’re running with the devil too. It’s a brilliant piece of marketing. At least for a child of the 80’s who grew up on Van Halen and what is now called, “Classic Rock.” And with a price tag of $150,000, people my age are probably exactly the kind of people Acura is targeting.

Or are they? I watched the commercial with my 18 year old daughter who loves cars. I’m not sure where in our family this comes from, but she could be classified as a motorhead. She loved the ad, the way it played up the car, the streamlined body, the powerful engine, but when I asked her after we watched it, “What do you think ‘what he said’ meant?” She thought it had to do with the screaming; the fact this car is so awesome you too will want to scream (and maybe that’s correct). But she missed the cultural hook.

This commercial got me thinking about the Bible. Not in the, “how can I stop running with the devil” way, but rather the many times the characters or writers of the New Testament quote the Hebrew scriptures with one tiny fragment when they might have intended it to be a cultural hook.

One needs to understand that people in Jesus’ day had basically memorized the entire Old Testament. Since there were very few copies of the texts, students (which was pretty much all of Jewish society), would spend time memorizing the entire set of 39 books. When a religious leader wanted to make a point, he would quote one part of the passage and expect his listeners to fill in the rest.

For example, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he quoted Psalm 22, verse 1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) And a reader can easily stop there. However, if a person reads on (or has memorized) the entire Psalm, some very rich insights emerge. I encourage the reader to do this.

In addition, the writer of the book of Hebrews does something similar in numerous places in the book. For example, in Hebrews 2:12 the author also quotes Psalm 22:22 which again points to the entire Psalm and the work of Jesus.

There is more to be written on this topic, but I’ll stop for now. My commitment this week is to be more mindful of how I use cultural hooks as well as to identify where cultural hooks are being used all around me. I also want to check more closely when I find these hooks in literature, poetry, or my reading of the Bible. And I’ll especially be on the lookout for them when I watch the advertisements during Super Bowl 50 tomorrow.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Lost World of Genesis 1

I remember as a sophomore transferring to Fresno Pacific College, a Christian college in Fresno CA. I went there expecting it to be like summer camp all year long. I remember now my shock when, in my first course on the ancient world, I read the Enuma Elish and discovered that other civilizations had stories of creation that were similar, yet different from the Bible. Before this time I lived in a bubble that the only creation story ever told was the Biblical one.

Through study I've come to realize there are multiple creation stories from the Ancient Near East and, because humans are curious, each culture has sought to explain the world and humanity's place in it.

I recently finished the book, The Lost World of Genesis 1 by John H. Walton. In it, he seeks to unpack the creation story of the Bible while placing it in the context of creation narratives from the nations around the Israelites at that time. Walton argues the original hearers of Genesis 1 would have understood the creation story in a vastly different way than we do today and we would do well to step back and consider this point of view.

Walton presents a case the creation story is one of purpose, rather than material creation. That the questions the Israelites were asking were more about how things work and function rather than how God made something from nothing. The ancient Israelites assumed God created, it's just they were more concerned with function and purpose. He concludes his book with something I had never thought of before, the Day 7 section in Genesis 1 would have sounded similar to other stories' temple passages; which would mean the creation story is about God creating and dwelling in his temple. And that on Day 7, when the text says, "God rested," the image is God sitting in his temple ready to rule.

I've spent a lot of time in the Bible and this was the first time I'd heard Walton's point of view. I found it intriguing and made me want to study more.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The gift of skilled artisans

I was reminded today of a piece of art I saw when I was in Bogota in 2008. This quilt is one of 3 and was made by local women who had been displaced by violence in Colombia. As one can see from the photo, this quilt depicts a village scene, which, apart from the two boys fighting in the top, is happy and peaceful. The other quilts in the series present a much darker reality. (That's Emily in the bottom right, one of the leaders of the MCC - sponsored tour)

The quilt came to mind when I read this story today.

3Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills 32 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 33 to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. 34 And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others.35 He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.36 So Bezalel, Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the Lord has given skill and ability to know how to carry out all the work of constructing the sanctuary are to do the work just as the Lord has commanded.”

I've read this story many times and have often thought about how cool it would be to have these kinds of abilities. My great-grandfather was a master carpenter/contractor and built a number of landmarks in Long Beach, CA. My grandfather built furniture from scratch, sometimes using just a photograph as a guide. And my mom has skills making fridge magnets and other cool items, but unfortunately, none of that skill got passed on to me.

As a teacher, and someone who would love to learn artistic skills, the phrase that really jumped out at me is verse 34. Both Bezalel and Oholiab had the ability to teach others. Not only were they skilled artisans, but they both had the ability to teach; a combination that can't always be assumed.

As a teacher, I want to be a person who combines knowledge with skill. I also want to find ways to make things with deep meaning like the women in Colombia. They used this medium to share a powerful story of hurt and loss. Their craftsmanship helped me to enter into their story.

Now I need to find more people like Bezalel and Oholiab to teach me how to hammer a nail or paint a picture.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Dark Ink

"The strongest memory is weaker than the palest ink"- Chinese proverb.

Thanks for my friends Paul and Sally Nash who write Marker Posts and Shelters. I came across this proverb this week. It got me thinking about the numerous articles, tweets, thoughts, and videos that come across my desk each day. With most I think, "This is so amazing, I'll never forget this." And yet, as the proverb so aptly states, with only a few exceptions, these great ideas soon vanish like mist. 

So, encouraged by this proverb and the practice of Paul and Sally who blog regularly. I'm embarking on a regular blogging track. I'll be writing on whatever struck me that day. It might be a video I saw on Yahoo News. It might be a tweet, or a section of a book I'm reading, it might be something I read that morning as I sat with God. 

I know occasionally this will be read by others, but my reason for writing is so I don't forget what I'm learning along the way. 

I titled this post "dark ink." I'm hoping this practice and discipline will build a bridge to memory. 

Sunday, May 03, 2015

An unlikely activist

I'm an unlikely activist.

When I was a college student I was focused on preparation for ministry and ‘saving souls.’ My dreams, plans, and desires were how to be more effective in youth ministry, camps, mission trips, etc. I strove to be a person who made an impact, and what mattered was how the now impacted the ‘future coming glory.’

I recall one instance on my college campus where a student group was showing a film relating to to the actions of the CIA in El Salvador. At the time, I couldn't be bothered to go and see it, I wasn't into 'social justice.'

After a number of years in full-time ministry my story slowly began to change. Etched into my memory is a trip to Mexico, where our group lead a vacation Bible school (VBS), and one of the activities was a craft. On this day we had children glue beans and macaroni to a plate to make a picture. The VBS was held in a home and at the end we gave the leftover macaroni and beans to the hostess. As we were cleaning up to go back to our basecamp and American style dinner, I noticed the hostess sweeping the dirt floor to pick up the beans and macaroni that had fallen during the craft. It suddenly hit me that for her beans and macaroni were FOOD not craft materials. My North American cultural arrogance hit me hard. I determined at that point never to do a craft that included food items again.

My path toward activism continued to change after my wife and I went to Great Britain to live and work. My eyes were opened to a global world which was different than my sheltered American upbringing. I met followers of Jesus from a variety of cultures who thought and lived very differently to me.

While living in the UK I was able to travel to a number of countries, including Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was just after the war in the late '90's and I saw firsthand the devastation of extreme poverty. I had seen poverty in Mexico, but the depth of poverty in this war torn country was shocking.

That trip, and others around the globe like it, have shaped me in profound ways. My own naive college-student ideas of both theology and what 'social justice' meant has shifted.

In 2006 I heard about ONE and the work it was doing to alleviate poverty in Africa. My family had lived in the UK during the turn of the millennium when the "Make Poverty History" campaign began and at that time had tried to participate and promote it. Because the goals were similar, I signed up for ONE.

ONE is a bi-partisan organization which describes itself on the website as: ONE is an international campaigning and advocacy organization of more than 6 million people taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa because the facts show extreme poverty has already been cut by 60% and can be virtually eliminated by 2030, but only if we act with urgency now. Cofounded by Bono, we raise public awareness and work with political leaders to combat AIDS and preventable diseases, increase investments in agriculture and nutrition, and demand greater transparency so governments are accountable to their citizens.”

As a point of entry into “activism”, with ONE it was easy to feel like an activist- the website is set up in such a way that all I needed to do was click and I was able to send a message to my congressperson on issues of poverty in Africa, mosquito nets, immunizations, and electricity. I was what some call a 'clicktavist' and it felt good to help.

My family moved to Wichita in 2013 and through conversation with the ONE headquarters I have become more involved. I agreed to the role of Regional Faith Leader (RFL) for Wichita. By this step I have moved deeper into activism.

The role of RFL led to me attending the ONE Power Summit in Washington DC at the beginning of March. I gathered with about 150 fellow ONE members from around the USA to learn more about the issues of global poverty to hear from policy makers from across party lines, and to spend a day on Capitol Hill talking to Senators and Congresspersons about issues of electricity, immunizations, and global HIV/Aids treatments. It was fun to visit Kansas lawmakers with fellow Kansans to talk about these issues.

I've come along way from college when I wouldn't see a film because it had to do with peace and justice. I now actively promote these issues because I see the Kingdom of God as much more than "pray a prayer so you can go to heaven when you die". I believe that the Church is called to make a difference here and now in this world. As Jesus says in Matthew 25:40: The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Please join me and the other 6 million ONE members from around the world by adding your voice to speak up for the world’s poor at

I plan on writing more about ONE and issues of poverty in the future. Stay tuned.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Gift Exchange

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it[a] says:
“When he ascended on high,
    he took many captives
    and gave gifts to his people.”[b]
….11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4: 7-8, 11-13.

Gifts are something we exchange during this Christmas time. Have you ever thought about why we do this?

I suppose it could be due to the Wise Men. We all know they brought their gifts to Jesus. I also suppose it could be because of St. Nicholas, the real person, who lived in Turkey in the in the early 300’s and used his inheritance to help the sick, needy, and suffering.

Today’s passage leads us to a different place. Maybe we give gifts because Jesus also gave gifts to us. The gifts from Jesus include people: you and me, and the special abilities that we uniquely bring to our faith communities.

Here at Tabor College this year we exchanged gifts with one another. However we did something completely different than any gift exchange I’d ever experienced before. We exchanged the gift of prayer. Each person was given the name of a colleague in the office and invited to pray for that person and his or her family for a week. We were instructed to write down any verses, words, or pictures we had while we prayed for the person; and finally, at the “gift exchange” we shared those words, pictures, verses, etc. with the person.

I have to say this is one of the most memorable staff Christmas times I’ve ever experienced. I’ve loved the laughter of funny White Elephant gift exchanges, but for the impact and meaning, it will be hard to beat this year.

For whom can you give the gift of prayer? What true gifts can all of us give to those we love this Christmas?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lament or Pop Song Lyric?

I know not all the people reading this are parents of teenagers like I am. But I would guess that most of you have heard of pop/country singer Taylor Swift. Swift has created a musical empire by singing songs focused on breakups and love gone wrong.

I’m a volunteer youth leader at my church. It’s a wonderful job to have, especially after 30+ years of working full-time with teenagers. I like the freedom of just showing up and helping out. My usual task is to lead the games and this past week I purchased a game show from a youth ministry website called DownloadYouthMinistry. The game was called: “Taylor Swift or Lamentations.” The powerpoint based game highlighted lyrics on the screen and the contestant had to identify if the words were from a Taylor Swift song, or Lamentations in the Bible.

The game is not as easy as one might think. Swift has written some pretty powerful lines and Jeremiah penned some pretty contemporary insights.

Running the game on Wednesday night got me thinking about connections between loss and lament. In the book of Psalms, laments far outnumber any other kind of songs. When people feel loss and pain one way to deal with it is to write and sing a song; that’s certainly what Taylor Swift has done. As a friend who was studying counseling once said to me, “One thing that all humans share is an experience of loss.” I’ve never forgotten that. Laments are praises in the time when God seems hidden and absent. It’s also the freedom to let God know exactly how we feel without holding anything back.

Biblical laments can be personal or communal and generally follows a 6-step process:
  1. Address to God
  2. Complaint
  3. Confession of trust
  4. Petition
  5. Words of assurance
  6. Vow of praise

Read Psalm 42 which is a personal lament. Notice how it is written in poetry, as a song.

1 As the deer pants for streams of water,
   so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
   When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
   day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
   “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember
   as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
   under the protection of the Mighty One[d]
with shouts of joy and praise
   among the festive throng.
5 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
   Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
   for I will yet praise him,
   my Savior and my God.
6 My soul is downcast within me;
   therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
   the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
   in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
   have swept over me.
8 By day the Lord directs his love,
   at night his song is with me—
   a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God my Rock,
   “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
   oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
   as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
   “Where is your God?”
11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
   Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
   for I will yet praise him,
   my Savior and my God.

I know that with the beginning of the school year most people are excited and ready to go. Loss and lament can often seem far away. Yet I also know that as the term goes on, as family situations unfold, and as circumstances come up; many of us find ourselves experiencing loss of some type. Rather than bitterness, I hope we’ll turn to songs of lament to help us express ourselves. No matter who the author: Jeremiah, King David, or Taylor Swift.