Monday, February 28, 2011

That Distant Land, by Wendell Berry

Berry has a wonderful way of bringing the reader into the fictional community of Port William. With a love for the land and the intricate web of relationships comprising a “membership” of people, Berry takes us into the lives of multiple generations, from a teenage Wheeler Catlett when he is grappling with his mother’s love for her alcoholic baby brother Uncle Peach to an elderly Wheeler getting lost driving, though never admitting it, for “Wheeler assumed that being in motion was the same as being found. If he kept going, he would eventually see something he recognized” (p. 435). Also, we meet Burley Coulter who regretted never marrying the “love of his life” Kate Helen Branch (p. 378), but, after Kate's death, always cared for their son Danny Branch and his family. In fact, Danny and Burley held so much in common with their love for the land, hunting, gathering berries, being men “of the woods and streams," near the end of Burley’s life, Danny with a love for his dad, someone in the early years he called “Uncle Burley,” “sneaks” Burley out of the hospital and brings him to a place by the “old barnhouse” that Burley loved so much, “… the barn had been used for many years only by groundhogs and other wild creatures and by Burley and Danny, who had sheltered there many a raining day or night” (p. 385). Danny buries Burley, “A heavy pressure of finality swelled in his heart and throat as if he might have wept aloud, but as he walked he made no sound. He stepped into the grave and laid the body down” (p. 413). We meet Andy Catlett’s grandfather Mat Feltner who, along with his mother, as a young man, found a way to forgive Thad Coulter who had killed Mat’s father Ben in a moment of rage. Andy writes, “I am blood kin to both sides of that moment when Ben Feltner turned to face Thad Coulter in the road and Thad pulled the trigger. The two families, sundered in the ruin of a friendship, were united again first in new friendship and then in marriage. My grandfather made a peace here that has joined many who would otherwise have been divided. I am the child of his forgiveness” (p. 75). Also we walk with barely-a-teenager Elton Penn who hates his step-father but is welcomed in by Tol and Minnie Proudfoot. As Elton grows, he marries Mary (against her family’s wishes) and works hard as a hired hand on the land of Jack Beechum. Though leaving a vague will, it had always been Jack Beechum’s wish that Elton receive the land at ½ its value, at $200/acre. However the daughter of Jack Beechum, Clara, and her husband Gladston have more interest in profitability than their father’s wishes, so put up the land for sale. At Wheeler Catlett’s prodding, Elton keeps bidding on the land, finally winning it at $300/acre. While Elton has taken on more than he can afford and hates the thought of seeking help from others, Wheeler says to him, “Your debt to Jack Beechum is a debt, and it’s not payable- not to him, anyhow…. This is only human friendship…. It’s not accountable, because we’re dealing in goods and services that we didn’t make, that can’t exist at all except as gifts…. you’re friends and neighbors, you work together, and so there’s lot’s of giving and taking without a price- some that you don’t remember, some that you never knew about. You don’t send a bill. You don’t, if you can help it, keep an account” (pp. 287-88). Many years later, Elton and Mary, with the help of friends, have worked hard to pay off the note. 

What more can we say about these characters of Berry's? We could go on about the wonderful characters of brothers Mart and Art Rowanberry, … the twinkle in their father Early’s eyes when Art returns from the war or the strength of Nancy Beechum who, with her son Mat, chose to forgive her husband’s murderer; the supportiveness of Nathan and Hannah Coulter when their Uncle Burley decides to give his land to Danny and Lyda, instead of to them. 

Berry certainly has a way of “drawing you in” and bringing you into the lives of these dear people as they make their way through the years. The heart awakens to insights and reflections about the human experience that are poignant and penetrating, moving, profound and also ordinary, … ordinary in the sense that the experience of grappling with sadness and hardship is common to us all. I began the book hardly having read much of Berry. I leave it deeply moved and a huge Berry fan. Were I to try and summarize the major themes of Berry's book, they would come down to these: a) friendship; b) land; c) community; and d) the virtues of time-tested ways. Perhaps the reflections near the end of the book summarizes it well:

"Danny Branch was one of Wheeler Catlett’s last comforts, for Danny embodied much of the old integrity of country life that Wheeler had loved and stood for…. In a time when farmers had believed that they had to take their needs to market or they could not prosper, Lyda and Danny ate what they grew or what came, free for the effort, from the river and woods. They drank from their well and milk from their cow, and in winter sat warm beside a stove in which their own wood burned. Because Danny still worked mules, they grew much of their own fuel for farm work. They fertilized their fields mostly with manure from the animals. And so of course they prospered. And so in the last light of Wheeler’s day and time he and Danny had one another’s company, and that was prosperity too, in its way” (p. 433).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Desiring the Kingdom, by James K. A. Smith

Smith writes with the premise that we are first and foremost loving creatures, that too often Christians have overly-emphasized the importance of right doctrine or right thinking to combat the challenges of living in a world that holds much in antithesis with the Gospel of Christ. Not that these emphases are wrong in and of themselves but that they do not go far enough, because ultimately if we are "loving" creatures and not merely "thinking" creatures, then it is going to take more than "right thinking" to transform and change us into the people we are supposed to be. Smith contends that the practices of worship that we partake in on a regular basis, both private and public, individual and corporate, begin to shape our hearts and imaginations as they get embedded into our "social imaginary." These habits begin to give us a love for the vision of the Kingdom of God and to live for it instead of the lesser visions of human flourishing that are all around us. Smith makes the case that there are many "secular (i.e. competing) liturgies" all around us that vie for our affections, become embedded into our hearts and turn our hearts' desires. All these "liturgies" hold forth a kind of vision for human flourishing, i.e. the Kingdom of God, ... yet also hold unsatisfactory, even harmful answers. For example, think about the "liturgies" of national patriotism and sporting events, often intertwined into a common story: a) we say the pledge of allegiance from our youth in school; b) we sing the national anthem at various sporting events; c) we honor fallen soldiers at these events: d) we have military aircraft fly overhead before the start of sporting events; e) we inter-mix stories of "glory" whether that of the gridiron or the battlefield and f) we mix metaphors in both arenas as we speak of "combat, the heat of battle, being a warrior/soldier, etc."  

Now, the emphasis on these themes is not bad in and of itself unless it supplants the dominant image that the Gospel of Christ means to bring us, that we are part of a pan-national citizenship that involves all who have a citizenship in heaven, ... a vision of a Kingdom that involves all peoples, nations and tribes and seeks their shalom and flourishing.  Also, we no longer speak of the "ultimate sacrifice" as necessarily a soldier dying for one country, sometimes in the middle of killing soldiers of other countries, but we redefine the "ultimate sacrifice" after the vision of Isaiah 53 when we're told about "the suffering servant" who was "... oppressed and afflicted, yet ... did not open his mouth; ... led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."  The "ultimate sacrifice" envisions the One who gave up His life for "all peoples, nations and tribes," for their advantage and flourishing, not only that of one nation. 

But the larger point for Smith is that we have come to assume and "love" these ideas of sacrifice and American nationalism because of the practices and "liturgies" we have participated in, often from youth, and their exercise have created a space in our hearts and imaginations to live out of the power of their narrative.  Yet, for the heart to be changed and transformed to desire the Kingdom of God, counter-formative habits and practices of Christian practice and worship need to be a regular and intentional part of our lives; they must serve as a corrective to the various liturgies that vie for our hearts each and every day (and in many ways have already captured them). Smith walks through the particulars of worship practices rooted in the history and the practice of the Church and in the end makes a case for ecclesial universities that connect the classroom with the worship practices of the Church, as the original question in the opening of his book asks, "what is a Christian education for?"

I'm not yet fully formed on Smith's perspective on the pursuit of building ecclesial universities. While it seems neither to be in Smith's heart nor writing, I wonder if the logical end of forming these kind of schools stands to become sectarian and "anti-cultural," despite Smith writing explicitly against this end. Overall, an amazing and provocative book to get us to think about the things we participate in each and every day that end up capturing our hearts and shaping our lives, sometimes in harmful ways but also to give us a vision for how we "counter" these particular and powerful heart-shaping influences.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Fabric of Faithfulness, by Steven Garber

Well, what better way to start off reporting on some of my reading than by sharing from Steven Garber, a man who will be one of my primary mentors through the D.Min. program? The premise of The Fabric of Faithfulness is so simple, the goal of the book so clear, the vision, … stunning. Originally this book was written in 1996 to a university audience. In fact, the subtitle in the original edition was Weaving Together Life and Belief During the University Years; however, the book received such a wide readership over the next decade, that the "re-title" in 2006 left out the "During the University Years." What does it mean to give to a young person the tools to connect his presuppositions about life to life and behavior? First of all, what does it mean to give to that young person a worldview that is rich and complex enough to help anchor him in truth in an ever-changing, pluralistic, cynical and broken world? Next, what will it take to find “mentors” who have embodied the connection between worldview convictions, behavior and life? Finally, having observed those who have done this, what does it mean to live among friends and peers who have this same vision of life and conviction that life in this world that God has made is so profoundly meaningful and full of moral goodness, the pursuit of a “good life” as Garber puts it. 

Being in a church that has many university students, I was struck with the amazing privilege we have at Grace Chapel to influence young people, to encourage them to form “habits of the heart” at a time when they will be setting off into the world either to do something “meaningful” with their lives or simply to pursue fame, achievement and riches for their own sakes. Do we spend time understanding our education to be more than a “passport to privilege”? Do we see at the heart of true education, “moral formation” and the rigorous work of cultivating virtue? This was an extremely challenging book to me for a couple of reasons: 1) as said, our congregation is filled with college students, yet how myopic can I as a pastor can get at times, wondering how the “bills” are going to be paid? Instead, how I need to be reminded that our church continues to have a profound stewardship opportunity to invest in young people and to give to them a “moral vision” for life, that what they choose to “do” matters terribly and 2) to think about my own life as an almost-forty-year-old person, to wonder, … having “passed” those “critical years of moral formation,” where I am today. Where has integration and moral formation (or lack thereof) brought me to this point in life? What are the "habits of the heart" formed in my youth that continue to define my life today?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Why the Pursuit of a "D.Min."?

Of course, the irony is not lost on me that the name of my new degree program (Doctor of Ministry) is sometimes abbreviated to "D.Min." Sound it out! and you are likely to wonder, what is this guy who lives on Diablo Dr., wears "Mephisto" shoes and has been said to have somewhat of a devilish grin, ... what is he doing now pursuing a D.Min.??? Well, these were the reasons I gave to Covenant Theological Seminary ...

For years, I have been very interested in questions regarding cultural engagement.  I have led three different “shepherding” groups at our church over the last six years, seeking to see elders raised up in our rather young church.  Some titles we’ve engaged are: 1) Far as the Curse is Found, by M. Williams; 2) Christ and Culture by Niehbur; 3) Resident Aliens by Willimon and Hauweras and most recently 4) Deep Church by Jim Belcher.

Furthermore, books that have impacted me this last year and more recently are: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy by Thomas Oden, The Biography of Cornelius Van Til by John Muether as well as To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.  In Muether’s book, p. 66, he quotes Reformed giant J. Gresham Machen who said these words in his opening address at the opening of Westminster Seminary:

... But we cannot consent to impoverish our message by setting forth less than what we find the Scripture to contain; and we believe that we shall best serve our fellow-Christians, from whatever church they may come, if we set forth not some vague common measure among various creeds, but that great historic Faith that has come through Augustine and Calvin to our own Presbyterian Church.  Glorious is the heritage of the Reformed Faith.  God grant that it may go forth to new triumphs even in the present time of unbelief!

These words struck deeply because I love the Reformed Faith.  Yet, I have grown so deeply over the last ten years of our new church, a church that draws from a variety of traditions and backgrounds.  I celebrated Thomas Oden’s joy when he spoke of a renewal of orthodoxy in mainline traditions that had long ago seemed to be “dead” or apostate.  I so appreciated Tim Keller getting me to think about C.S. Lewis’ “hallway” and seeing the commonality we hold with “mere Christians.”  I was drawn to Belcher’s “Deep Well” illustration of drawing people to the “top tier” of the Gospel and then using discipleship as the tool by which we narrow the focus a bit and seek to train people up in the “bottom tier” of our particular tradition.

Yet, after ten years of having planted and pastored a PCA church, while I celebrate the number of theological students we have trained up, and while I know that our church has had a broad reach, especially to young people sent from us to serve the Lord throughout the world, … yet I wonder two things in particular: 1) how many people have we truly influenced for the Reformed Faith? but also, … 2) is our particular tradition (Reformed) worth fighting for as much as the celebration of historical orthodoxy/“mere Christianity” that so many of our people have come to love and embrace, celebrate and live for, even though sometimes remaining thoughtful Arminians, Baptists, Lutherans and even dispensationalists?  Many have come through our doors over the last ten years, some have been “converted” to the Reformed Faith, yet others have remained with their particular traditions, … yet continue to think well of Grace Chapel (our church), whether they stay or pursue a tradition that more readily identifies with their theological convictions.

What does it mean to celebrate the catholicity of the church, all the while standing firm and rejoicing in a particular tradition (in my case, Reformed)?  And how does this celebration of both work itself out in the life of the local church?  Because, ultimately the question impacts the mission of the Church.  Why?  Didn’t Jesus say something about the world knowing we’re His by the love we have for one another?  How we relate to one another, despite the plurality of traditions represented in the American church, directly impacts the credibility of our message to a watching world.  Doesn’t it?  To borrow from Davison Hunter’s language, what is “Faithful Presence”?  What is it for us as we look towards not only the world that God so loved, but to the right and the left to the various expressions of the Bride He so loved as well?  I’m hoping the D.Min. program can help me grapple further with these questions.  

"Third Phase" of Hsu Bloggy Blog

Originally, I began the Hsu Bloggy Blog to give my congregation updates on how my summer preaching sabbatical was going back in the summer of 2008. Before long, the blog morphed into more of a site documenting the needs of the Haitian people, also that of my various travels to Haiti as well as that of Grace Chapel people.

While I will continue to blog about Haiti, especially when I travel to Haiti, I do believe it's time for the blog to turn to a "third phase." Now that Gene Summerlin has started a Facebook page for Grace Chapel Haiti: GC Haiti Facebook and has also become Grace Chapel's new Haiti Ministries Coordinator (e-mail:, I will shift the attention of my blog to work I am doing on a Doctor of Ministry program at Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS). As I read my books and input journal entries, I will try to document some of that work on the blog, for those who might be interested in my travels through the program.

The program I am pursuing at CTS has an emphasis called "Faith-Vocation-Culture" and seeks to explore the various ways Christians have sought to engage the world; the role of faith as it informs the "things God has given us to do" (our vocation or "vocations"); and how the world means to be "kept" and influenced as a result.

Onto the "third phase"!