A Day in the Life of a Professional Mourner

A dance company reenacts a funeral right based on professional mourners in Italy. Flickr photo by Dave Bledsoe

A dance company reenacts a funeral right based on professional mourners in Italy. Flickr photo by Dave Bledsoe

The author was a professional mourner living in Palestine in the first century A.D./C.E.

No one aspires to become a mourner. Even I entered the profession not by choice, but rather out of necessity, for my husband died and left me with such meager wealth that I would have been without bread in a few weeks, but for the kindness of friends. For a time, I accepted that kindness, but I soon found my sense of shame too great to allow for such dependence.

I had often seen the mourners following the funeral trains, their black outer garments torn in an outward display of grief, their voices raised in a kind of rhythmic wailing, their faces red with tears. I had observed them entering the homes of the bereaved to sit with them and provide them whatever small comfort was required. After seven days, they seemed to vanish, only to appear again when another member of the village made his way to Abraham’s bosom.

I approached my new profession with much trepidation. The idea of being constantly surrounded by death was unappealing to me. I could not fathom how I would maintain the continual state of heightened emotions or how I could force my eyes to spring forth with a river of tears. Yet, in time, I found it just as natural as breathing. Both the body and the spirit must be made to obey the demands of the moment, and so they do for me each time I set out in my dark apparel. Continue reading

I Love Mark Driscoll

Pastor and author Mark Driscoll speaks at the opening of a new location of Mars Hill Church in the Seattle area in 2011. Flickr photo by Mars Hill Church Seattle

Pastor and author Mark Driscoll speaks at the opening of a new location of Mars Hill Church in the Seattle area in 2011. Flickr photo by Mars Hill Church Seattle

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

These famous words from the book of Ecclesiastes (1:9b) are so universally relevant that they tend to pop into my head whenever I find human behavior once again failing to provide any real element of surprise, despite the apparent contextual differences. Over the last couple days, I have been thinking about them once again.

It all started when I made a visit to that website that everyone seems to use even though no one appears to like it: Facebook. I was scrolling through my “news feed”, which in actuality is a concoction of approximately 20% advertisements, 20% baby and/or pet pictures, 20% people posting quotes or verses that they want their friends to read, 20% people saying “X number of years ago today…” someone got married or was born, and 20% people complaining about something. (No judgment here – I’m pretty sure I’ve done all of those things on Facebook.)

In due course, a headline jumped out at me from a website I had “liked” once upon a time, saying something along the lines of “Acts 29 Network Kicks out Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church”. Continue reading

The Deluge: Was Noah’s Flood the Real Deal?

"The Deluge" by Francis Darby, first exhibited in 1840.

“The Deluge” by Francis Darby, first exhibited in 1840.

As the new film Noah is now playing at a cinema near you, and the church I am now attending was divinely predestined to come upon this story in their study of Genesis on exactly the same weekend (I’ve been told it was a mere coincidence), the Flood has been on my mind a bit more than usual of late. When it comes to epic stories, they don’t come much bigger than Noah’s. It is surely one of the tales that inspired the term “biblical proportions”.

Back in 2011, when a tsunami devastated parts of Japan and led to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, I was struck by how, even with all of our modern technology and efforts to bend Mother Nature to our will, we can still be brought to our knees by the most basic substance on our planet. I sat down and wrote the following essay, which I now find to be relevant given the discussions about Noah’s Flood, or as it is often called, the Deluge. Included is an admittedly amateur level analysis of the fossil record and the implications of ancient flood narratives. Continue reading

The Mountain No One Can Climb

Tibet's Mount Kailash, a sacred pilgrimage site for four different religions. Photo by Wikipedia user Heringf

Tibet’s Mount Kailash, a sacred pilgrimage site for four different religions. Photo by Wikipedia user Heringf

Many of us are familiar with the stirring tune “Climb Every Mountain” from the musical The Sound of Music and its repeated insistence that we shy away from no hilly obstacle. But were you to take the lyrics of this song not as a heartwarming metaphor, but rather as a literal requirement, you would find yourself sadly coming up short. For on planet earth today, there is one mountain that it is not possible for you to climb, and it has nothing to do with your physical capabilities.

Central Asia is home to the world’s tallest mountain range, the Himalayas, which run through multiple countries. They present an incredible challenge to the world’s mountaineers, but even the tallest peak, Mount Everest, has long since been conquered. However, in the region of Tibet within China (I should mention that Tibetans dispute that they should be part of China), just north of the Himalayas, lies one particular mountain that is different from all the rest. If you were to ask permission from the Chinese government to climb it, they would deny your request. At no point in modern history has a person ever reached its summit. Continue reading

Scatter Plot: When Sheep are separated from their Shepherds

Crypt of Lucina, 200-300 AD, early Christian catacomb of Domitilla

Early Christian artwork depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd from the Catacombs of Callixtus in Rome. (circa 200-300 A.D./C.E.)

One of the metaphors that tends to be used over and over again in scripture is that of a shepherd and his sheep. From the words of the 23rd Psalm, which many Christians can quote from memory, to Jesus’ statement that he is the “Good Shepherd”, pastoral imagery is very common throughout the 66 books of the Bible. This makes sense, since ancient Israel was a society that raised a lot of sheep. Indeed, you can still find sheep being raised there today.

As described in the New Testament, Christ is the chief shepherd, the head of the Church, and all believers are sheep. This is not meant to be a particularly favorable comparison, as sheep are rather dumb animals. They need their shepherd to guide them everywhere and keep them out of trouble, providing them with food and protecting them from threats. This is the role that Christ plays for the Church. Continue reading

The Greatest of These

Couple_holding_hands_in_Kauai_(7635480262)

Flickr photo by Christopher Michel

It seems ironic that the lives of the 20th century’s two most beloved theologians – C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – should have been so marked by tragedy.  Then again, perhaps it makes perfect sense.  Undoubtedly, it is part of the reason why their stories continue to captivate us.  One cut down in the flower of youth by a tyrannical Nazi regime (Bonhoeffer); one forced to endure the wrenching heartache of personal loss  when his wife died of cancer (Lewis).  Surely it informed their theology, but I would rather say that their passage of these two tests lends truth to the words they have spoken. Continue reading

Aliens and Strangers

The surface of Mars as seen by the Mars Pathfinder vessel. Official NASA photo

The surface of Mars as seen by the Mars Pathfinder vessel. Official NASA photo

I will come right out and admit it: I am not an expert when it comes to scientific topics. I took all the science courses that I needed to in order to graduate from high school and get my college degree, and I got decent grades in all of them, but that should not be confused with the kind of serious credentials required to speak authoritatively on scientific issues. Nevertheless, I have found that the older I get, the more I tend to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, and by that I mean the entire universe.

One day, when my brain decided to make such a diversion from the “right side” to the “left side”, I found myself contemplating the possibility of alien life, as in life that exists in the universe but not on planet earth. It was then that I thought to ask my husband the question, “If alien life was discovered on another planet, would it make you doubt your Christian faith?” Continue reading

Are Allah and Yahweh the Same?

Allah medallion Hagia Sophia Wikipedia Adam Kliczek

The name Allah appears form on this medallion inside the Hagia Sophia mosque/church/museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Wikipedia user Adam Kliczek (CC-BY SA 3.0)

Today, I want to address a question which I have often heard put to myself or others, one that seems to cut to the heart of the world’s two largest religions, Christianity and Islam.

Is Allah the same as Yahweh?

Allah, the God to whom Muslims pray five times a day, whom they hold as the only true God, and around whom their religious lives are centered.  Yahweh, the God of the ancient Israelites whose name is spelled with the consonants YHWH in Hebrew.  Are these two supreme beings one and the same? Continue reading

“12 Years a Slave”: Thoughts on America’s Darkest Chapter

An examination of some of the issues raised by director Steve McQueen’s newest film, including its historical, cultural, and spiritual implications.

I did not go to see 12 Years a Slave intending to write about it, but as much for myself as for others, I feel a need to do so now.  What I saw was not an ordinary film.  I knew before I went in that it would prompt a great deal of philosophical pondering, but perhaps even this expectation has proved to be too small.

The film tells the story of Solomon Northrup according to his 1853 autobiography.  A free black man living in New York state, he was deceived and abducted into slavery while on a trip to Washington, D.C.  For the next twelve years, he witnessed the horrors of slavery on multiple plantations in Louisiana, until finally a chance encounter allowed him to press his legal case and earn back his freedom.  It’s the kind of amazing true story that screenwriters would normally dream about, but the darkness of the subject matter is likely part of the reason that no filmmaker has attempted the feat until now. Continue reading

Happy Reformation Day!

Wittenberg All Saints Church, The Theses Doors, Wiki AlterVista

The “Theses Doors” at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther purportedly nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” on October 31, 1517. Photo by Wikipedia user AlterVista

It is October 31st, a day which in the United States is associated with Halloween, a celebration that mostly involves dressing up, pigging out on candy, and covering the neighbor’s yard with toilet paper and smashed pumpkins.  However, did you also know that October 31st is Reformation Day?  What is Reformation Day?  Allow me to explain…

Nearly half a millennium ago, on October 31, 1517, a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany drafted an announcement of an upcoming university debate and posted it to the door of the local church, which in those days served as a kind of town message board. This is the kind of everyday occurrence that normally gets ignored by historians, except that the man’s name was Martin Luther and his announcement contained a list of “Ninety-Five Theses” that laid out what he believed were necessary reforms in the Catholic Church. As it turns out, the typical story of Luther authoritatively attaching his list of demands to the church door is likely apocryphal and based mostly on the account of his friend Philip Melanchthon, who may or may not have actually been in town at the time the event was supposed to have occurred. Continue reading