Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ben Towne

I never met Ben nor have I met his parents. Ben's mom, Carin, is dear friends with our daughter Annie. They have shared a deep love for country music. They were part of the same church, and Ben's dad, Jeff, was on that church's staff with Annie.

Just as Annie moved to Nashville, Ben was diagnosed with disease which in a breathtakingly high percentage of cases is a death sentence. Neuroblastoma, as I understand it, is a cancer that attacks the nervous system viciously, aggressively, quickly, and causing horrific suffering. The only treatment that holds much hope is as gruesome and horrible as the disease, attacking good nerves at the same time as the cancer.

Over the last 16 months this little two year old boy went through more suffering than most human beings will go through in a long life. Treatment was a nightmare of pain, one awful step at a time. Ben often lay writhing in pain, enduring the one pathway of hope that he had available to him. He lived in the hospital most of that time. He had much of his childhood stolen from him by this disease, having to become as tough and strong-willed as life gradually makes most of us over six or more decades.

Still, the stories we have heard about little Ben have been remarkable. The humor, energy, determination, courage, affection for those he loved, love of life. . . Ben was amazing. Astounding. Awesome. Awe-inspiring. Heroic. Hilarious. Heartwarming.

On November 3rd, we got word that the full extent of treatment known to modern medicine had failed, and that Ben was being sent home to die. Just when the hope had been that his body would be cancer free, tumors began popping up in his body, growing, again, viciously and aggressively, demonically, to my limited perception. Yet he fought on, giving his family many more memories.

Ben died yesterday morning, December 30th, 2008. He was almost three and a half years old.

For me, the intense suffering of a small child is a crossroad event, especially when it leads to death. One road coming through the intersection is actually a superhighway. It is characterized by an agony that articulates the very real, very honest and very tempting cry, "Where were You?"

The other "road," actually little more than a climber's trail, dangerous and meandering, staying close to the contours of the way things truly are, is definitely the way less traveled. This path is characterized by an agony that articulates a different cry. Something David Hart wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few days before Ben was born, in response to the tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands:

"For while Christ takes the suffering of His creatures up into His own, it is not because He or they had need of suffering, but because He would not abandon His creatures to the grave. . . As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy."

Goodbye, Ben. I never met you, but I will never forget you.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Konza

Today I walked in the Flint Hills of Kansas. It's become a ritual for me. I go either to the Tallgrass National Preserve or the Konza Prairie Trail (as today) regularly. Excellent hiking should contain elevation gain, a view, significant expenditure of energy, a bracing encounter with nature itself, beauty, and a sense of adventure. There are few places in the central Midwest where I found all of this. The Konza, however, qualifies.

And today it was in all of its glory. This, I think, was why God made these hills. The temperature on this December 29th was near 50. Not a cloud in the sky. Deep blue sky. The tallgrasses were golden, waist high, tinged with red as we looked across seas of them. I was with some of my favorite people. The white and red and burr oak trees were gnarled and dark, artistically set against the backdrop of the golden grass and blue sky. It was perfect; my body worked as it is supposed to. This is why I hike, and I still haven't come down from the joy I felt in my bones.

There. That's all. I just needed someone to tell about it. It was, today, just as the Scriptures say:

"Day to day pours out speech (referring to creation, when it is doing what it was made to do), and night to night reveals knowledge." Psalm 19:2

It was as one of the Puritans said:

"Praise waiteth for Thee, and to render it is my noblest exercise; this is Thy due from all Thy creatures, for all Thy works display Thy attributes and fulfill Thy designs; the sea, the dry land, winter cold, summer heat, morning light, evening shade are full of Thee, and Thou givest me them richly to enjoy. . . All Thy works praise Thee and Thy saints bless Thee." ("God-Honoured" in The Valley of Vision)

That's my part, our part. To bless Him consciously and from the heart as His creation praises Him by simply living out their part. Like the Konza did today.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I'm a journaler. But years ago I read Leanne Payne's book, Listening Prayer, in which she recommended using journaling as a prayer to God rather than as a diary/record of what is happening in one's life. And sometime later I discovered that St. Augustine wrote his most famous book Confessions entirely to God. We are invited to listen in, but the One for whom it is written is God. Both of these dear witnesses were powerful to me.

I have tried since to write in my journals (I'm in my 31st uninterrupted year of keeping journals now) to God, and that which has the "feel" of being from God. A few of the most precious, recent words that have seemed to me to be from God Himself to me. And maybe to you. . .

"Make me know the way I should go." Psalm 143:8

"Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herds in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in Yahweh; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God the LORD is my strength; He makes my feet like the deer's; He makes me tread on my high places." Habakkuk 3:17-19

"Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd. For the LORD of hosts cares for His flock, the house of Judah, and will make them like His majestic steed in battle." Zechariah 10:2,3 ( referred to in Mark 6 regarding Jesus, who, upon seeing the desperate masses on Israel, knew that they were like sheep without a shepherd)

"Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices." Psalms 16:9 The Hebrew word that is translated here "my glory" means "whole being." Glory is who and what we were meant for. It is our real self, which is the reflection of the living God uniquely placed in each of us. I sometimes get glimpses of who I was meant to be. I see glory, which is a reflection of the One and only, the true glory (John 1:14)

"You hold my lot." Psalm 16:5b A call to surrender and to trust.

"Your gentleness made me great." Psalm 18:35b

Does the Word of God every come off the page to you, illuminating the will of God for your life in specific situations? If so, I'd love to hear of an instance where God spoke to you.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Just over two years ago, I was introduced to a burgeoning body of thought and practice loosely collected under the title "missional." Since then, I have learned about a whole world of exploration, books, authors and speakers, conferences - all associated with the same word. And somewhere in that process, I was invited to be on the board of an organization dedicated to helping congregations be transformed into missional communities. Ever since, I have been on a dead run, trying to wrap my mind around what the word "missional" means. Since I'm supposed to know what I'm talking about now . . .

And here's a little bit of what I've learned.

It's NOT a new program to be added to the already existing programs of a church.

This is NOT business-as-usual material for churches trying to stay competitive. . . with one another.

Being missional is NOT first and foremost about having a heart for missions or sending money overseas, although that usually is true of people who are missional.

Being missional first of all calls for a different orientation from what the Church has had in an age of modernity. As our culture(s) moves from modernity to post-modernity, the Church is becoming increasingly marginalized; the culture is losing even a basic understanding of the Scriptural story; the Church is increasingly considered irrelevant to the culture. In such a context, the attractional model so dominant in modernist thinking within the Church is becoming and will become less and less effective, conservative Christianity will be villified more and more for its understanding of an exclusive Gospel and anything smacking of absolute truth, and the meaning of our language will no doubt be co-opted more and more, emptied of its meaning and replaced by meaning the culture is more comfortable with.

As a result, a missional orientation emphasizes the SENT Church, rather than the GATHERED Church. The locus of attention moves more from what we do within the Church walls (as crucial as that is and continues to be) to what we do with the other 95% of our week out in the world, being the Church on the world's turf.

Our focus becomes what we DO before what we SAY. The deeds of Jesus before the words of Jesus. Show, then tell. Lord knows there's a lot of people who are saying "We're sick of you telling us what you believe." The best way of earning the right to talk is to walk.

Being missional means becoming one of them before you can expect they will become one of us.

Missional living means being Kingdom-focused, well above local-church focused. In other words, competition between churches has to die.

The missional lifestyle is participatory. Not removed. It's something about hands-on.

Missional means servanthood over control. It really does mean coming alongside people confessing how many less answers we have than we thought we had once upon a time, but that we love them and want to be a neighbor. A good neighbor.

A missional person is little. Little trumps big.

Missional life means making partnerships with groups and organizations that you might not agree with about everything, but with whom you can partner on an issue. It means the death of the Christian "ghetto."

Being missional means community rules over program, especially the "one-size-fits-all" program.

That's what I think thus far. A great primer to introduce the subject is an article by Alan Roxburgh called "The Missional Church", found in the journal Theology Matters (2003?). Or the book by the same name, edited by Darrell Guder. Or try the blog Allelon (missional maps), or Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight. And towards the top of my list, I unashamedly encourage you to check out the work of the organization I get to work with, the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, at

I'd love to know what you think. . .

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas

Last weekend, Susan and I went to view a movie called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas at one of those funky cinemas that is still locally owned (as opposed to being an outlet of some corporate conglomerate). We have come to expect movies in this particular cinema that are more edgy, fringe, less welll-known. The trailer on this film told us that it was something of substance, and that it was not going to make a big splash in the mainstream U.S. movie-going public.

Still, nothing really prepared us for the cost of watching this specific movie. Not in terms of the cost of admission. In terms of the knife it left in our hearts.

The story is about a dear boy whose father is an officer in the SS, during World War II. He is given a new assignment that takes him out of the beloved and safe family home in Berlin, to a site in the countryside. The young boy is torn from his friends and displaced into a quiet estate house in the middle of nowhere. Little does he know that the people he can see moving around in a neighboring setting are prisoners in a concentration camp. The one his father has been commanded to come and oversee. Little does he know that the rancid smoke that fills the sky every few days is the burning of gassed bodies of dead Jews. And how little does this little boy grasp that the young boy in striped pajamas he meets through the electrified fence of the camp one day is the victim of a malevolent evil that he, his father, and his people have propagated.

As the movie enfolds, we are drawn into a gathering sense of alarm and forboding. Something horrible is building, danger is on every side, risk and tragedy seem to lurk just around the next corner. Every part of ones being begins hoping for a life-giving ending. It is not to be.

When I read the credits at the end, I thought, "Of course. It is a Hungarian film. I should have known." The Hungarians who so willingly collaborated with Hitler in the extermination of Jews and who have spent the last 7 decades doing penance for their evil. This movie is a confession of sin, a self-flagellation filled with the despair of having no saviour to put things to right on their behalf.

If you see this movie, you will come out of it, no doubt, asking "Where is the hope?" Interestingly enough, the movie reviews are almost totally focused on style; NOT on content. There is a deliberate and intentional refusal to engage in the horrid reality of nihilism that one is confronted with as the film ends. The reviewers, almost laughingly, won't even begin to cry out with the hopelessness the movie was intended to scream at us. All they can do is to comment on incidentals, cinematic techniques, and story lines.

There is no hope in the movie. Nor in the book on which the movie was taken (by an Irish writer). Nor in world history. Nor in contemporary politics. Nor in the friendship of the boys. Nor in family relations. Nor in the authority of the State. Nor in the love of a mother. Nor in the
promise the trailer implied.

The only hope one is left with after watching this movie is from the outside. A grace which is left outside the movie and only hinted at in the love of the boys and the mother and the grandmother. A love spoken of only minimally through the lips of the pastor who buries the grandmother. Who has a name, and His name is Jesus.

Go see this movie. But only if you are prepared to bring with you the only hope this world has. The Incarnate One who identified with every wickedness known to humankind and bound it to His life, embraced it, took it as His own, and bore it to the Cross that it might die with Him.