Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Reformation Day?

As I sit here and write, I’ll be interrupted frequently with a knock at the door by kids dressed up in all manner of costumes and several who aren’t dressed up at all.  My own kids are currently out in the neighborhood doing the same.  In fact, they just came in the door with their haul.

Halloween has always been one of those ‘in the world, but not of the world’ kinds of things for me.  Even growing up, we always participated, but my parents made it quite clear where we really stood on the issues surrounding Halloween.   It was something fun to do as long as we kept things in perspective.  We always went door to door, but we never got into Halloween parties or the like.  We didn’t decorate the house.  It wasn’t a big deal…it was mostly an excuse to get a bunch of candy for free.

Growing up, I found it a rather unfortunate accident of the calendar that Reformation Day and Halloween fell on the same day.  Would Protestant’s have as many ‘mixed feelings’ about Halloween if it didn’t share itself with the hanging of the 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany?   Maybe some would, but for the most part, I think there’d be a lot less angst over Halloween among Reformed Christians if it were on a different day. 

Even so, I’ve appreciated the fact that over the years both at home and at school our kids have learned that today is also, Reformation Day.  What happened today is an important event in the history of the church.  As long as our kids keep remembering that history and learning about that event maybe having my two-year old put on a spider costume and go door-to-door saying, “tick-or-teat” isn’t the worst thing in the world.  Besides, Jessica likes to roast the seeds that we pull out of the pumpkins when we carve them.

So I, for one, wish you a Happy (and guilt-free) Reformation Day and I hope you get lots of candy.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Foreigner no Longer

This is a little belated, but as of Wednesday, Oct. 19th at 1:00 PM, at the Gerald R. Ford Museum here in Grand Rapids, Jessica became a bona fide naturalized citizen of these here United States of America.

For those that may not know, Jessica is a Canadian citizen.  Born and raised in St. Catharines, ON she came to Dordt College in 1994 on a student visa.  After we got married and determined that it was likely we’d be staying in the U.S. for the forseeable future we took the next step in the process to make her stay here more permanent. 

So in August of 1997, as part of our honeymoon, we made a trip to the Immigration Office in Omaha, NE (romantic, I know) where we began what came to be a two-year process to get her a green card.  So two one-year temporary work visas and a special request for travel to attend her brother’s wedding later she had a green card.  Officially, she had become a Legal Permanent Resident Alien of the United States.  This status would be good for ten years (the longest duration allowed) before we would have to apply again.    This gave her all the rights and responsibilities of a US Citizen except the right to vote in any election of any kind.

But somehow, Permanent Resident Alien still seemed to, well….foreign. First of all, only the US government can call something that by definition only lasts ten years at most ‘permanent’.  Second, that word alien…it just isn’t very inviting.  She was living AS an alien and I was living WITH an alien…neither of us were too fond of the moniker. 

Her most recent green card expired in May of 2011, so last year about this time we started talking about what to do next.  Do we apply for another green card and get us another ten years or do we go whole hog and get it done once and for all?  After talking about it ourselves and taking wise counsel from others, we opted for the latter.  Thus began the research.

We would need to submit an application for naturalization which would need to be approved.  She would have to undergo a ‘biometrics’ appointment in which her fingerprints would be taken.  After that, we would have to appear for an interview in Detroit where she would be quizzed on her knowledge of the history and government of the USA.  A quiz that I doubt many Americans could pass and if we could successfully navigate all of that her application would be recommended for approval.

So we sent in the completed application in February of this year.  Completed the biometrics appointment in April and attended an interview in Detroit on June 13th and then we waited. 

The next government notice we received was that we missed her oath ceremony on July 20.  The problem was that we had never received the notice to attend.  So after more waiting and phone calling, we found out that her oath ceremony would be on October 19, 2011.

The story takes many twists and turns – not the least of which is neglecting to bring her green card to the interview in Detroit which was just about disastrous – we made it.  The ceremony was very well done.  She was sworn in with 85 others representing 37 countries of the world.  It was solemn and fun all at the same.  For many, this was a dream come true. 

What’s this all mean?  It means that I no longer with an alien, I guess. But, as Christians, I suppose were all aliens….we’re just permanent resident aliens here on earth as we await the Lord’s return.  In the meantime, we swear an oath of allegiance to our countries even as our true allegiance is to the ruler of every country.

Welcome to the US of A, Jessica! 

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Lately, a number of things that I’ve both encountered and have been studying have led to my doing a lot of thinking about ‘theodicy’.  Theodicy is essentially the relationship between the goodness of God and the reality of evil.  The word first appeared in print in the 1700’s in an essay by a philosopher named Gottfried Liebniz in which he was attempting to reconcile the goodness of God with the presence of evil.  The word itself is the combination of two Greek words:  Theos – God and Dike – Justice.   Understood using those terms, theodicy is the study of the justice of God.

Three things have led me to contemplate this lately.  First, I’m taking a class on the book of Job this semester.  Much of the discussion in the class has centered around the challenge of reconciling the goodness of God with the reality of evil. We have essentially been wrestling with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  What does the book of Job offer us, if anything, in answer to that question?  In addition to that, we’ve been discussing the providence of God in Systematic Theology which leads to the question, “What is God’s plan?”  Second and third are two instances of untimely death that have affected friends of ours.   Last week, our neighbor's 18 year-old niece was killed in a car accident after she got in a car with a drunk driver; and just this morning we learned that a young father of three who is a friend of a friend died of a sudden heart attack while biking.

Why do these things happen?  Were these deaths a part of God’s plan?  If God is good, why does he allow bad things to happen?  I’m not going to pretend to answer any of these questions here.  There has been much ink spilled in literally hundreds of books over hundreds of years that have attempted to do just that. There are a lot of people a lot smarter than me that have done a lot more thinking about these issues than I have.  Besides, I wonder if it’s even possible to give a humanly satisfying answer to that question.  So what do people who’ve been throw into unexplained grief need to hear?  What do you say to a child who’s just lost their dad?  To a mother who’s just lost her daughter?

I’ve thought a lot about how to address these questions pastorally.It seems to me that questions of this type of even harder to answer when you’re a Christian.  If you don’t believe in God to begin with, in a certain sense, the problem of theodicy doesn’t exist.  In that case, the questions of “why?” are profoundly different than if you believe in God that is good – a God that is “slow to anger and abounding in love.”

I’ve heard my share of pastoral horror stories,  Pastors and other friends who, even though they mean well, end up saying just the wrong thing.  Instead of helping they end up hurting.  I’ve also heard my share of stories of pastors and friends who’ve done the right thing and have made all the difference.  Note the distinction between saying and doing.  Most often, the stories of helping that I’ve heard have centered not so much on words but on actions. 

I don’t think we can ever provide words that can answer the questions imbedded in theodicy, but I think we can provide acts of kindness that acknowledge the grief of another.  Often what people need most in times of suffering are not words, but gestures – a hug, a smile, a tear, sitting with them in silence and sorrow.  I think, this is where Job’s friends get it right.  Job 2 tells us that his three friends sat with him in silence for a whole week before entering into a series of speeches attempting to console Job and defend God.  In the end, Job 42 tells us that Job spoke rightly and his friends did not…perhaps sitting in silence and solidarity with their grieving friend was the best answer of all.

It might be that, as a pastor, I’ll never be able to satisfactorily answer the question, “Why?”  for those that are grieving. But I do hope that I’ll be able to satisfactorily mourn with those who mourn in such a way that doesn’t attempt to answer the questions but at least attempts to understand them.  Part of my job will be to provide the words, but I hope that through my actions, more so than my words, those who are grieving will, at some point, be able to say again with the psalmist, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation” (Ps. 13:5).

God is Good and God is Just….I’m just not sure that there is good way reconcile those two things in this life.  Ultimately, that lack of reconciliation is itself the problem of evil.