Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My adventures to New Mexico, at Ghost Ranch, and back


Well, this isn’t really about Alaska, but it is about what I did this past week away from Alaska (mostly), so I’m sticking it into this site.

I spent the period of February 15-25, 2014 traveling about and taking some R&R time at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I stopped at a lot of airports: PSG – JNU – ANC – PDX – LAX – SAF, ABQ – DFW – LAS – SEA – KTN – WRG – PSG. Excluding my home airport, that was a stop in eleven airports of which I spent time on the ground in eight of them. Needless to say, I spent a rather large amount in the air and in airports.

I also spent the beginning and end of my stay in New Mexico in the capital city of Santa Fe. It is a mid-sized city with the historical downtown area composed of artsy shops and many fine dining establishments. At least in February, it didn’t feel too touristy. The more commercial area (which I did not go to) is located to the southwest. The historic area is quite amenable to walking. Even at night there were quite a few people walking about the city. I stayed at the Sage Inn located around a mile from the town square. It is close enough for a nice walk, or there is an hourly shuttle that runs between the hotel and the town square from morning to evening.

At the return end of my stay in Santa Fe I got to browse the Sunday arts and crafts booths at the Railyard Park’s Famers Market. There were quite a few artists offering their work: pottery, fabric, glass, jewelry, etc. The back part contained what looked like more permanent fixtures offering chocolate, teas, other foods, and a tasting room of the Vivac Winery. I picked up some teas, couple bottles of New Mexico wine, and a small clay cup.

There were a couple of shops that I particularly enjoyed. One is called Ten Thousand Villages and offers Fair Trade products from around the world. The other is Savory Spice Shop offering a huge selection of spices, herbs, and blends as well as a selection of local gourmet offerings. I purchased a few Indian and African spice blends. I put them in the suitcase for travel home and realized I should probably isolate it in a separate pocket so that the contents wouldn’t smell like spices for weeks.

The end of my trip coincided with the start of Santa Fe Restaurant Week. I took advantage of one of the special offerings to get a three-course meal at Vanessie. For $30 I chose the soup, a beef tenderloin filet, and a dessert.

Earlier in the day I went to Omira Brazilian Steahouse. It is an upscale buffet style steakhouse grilling and barbecuing various meats the Brazilian way. The miscellaneous items buffet section can be had by itself for a lower price, and even vegetarians will find a good selection here. I found this restaurant a great place to try out various types of meat during a single meal. I would almost consider coming back to Santa Fe just for this experience.

Most of my time was spent at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Church (USA) education and retreat facility. It is located about one-hour north of Santa Fe in the middle of nowhere. The closest town is Abiquiu. This is the home of Georgia O’Keefe. The scenery is spectacular. With this winter being so dry and mild, it felt like spring during my stay. A few of the nights got quite cold and some of the days were rather windy, but they were still fine for the hikes that I took.

There are three main hikes directly accessed from Ghost Ranch. The first goes up toward and next to Chimney Rock. Although this ones climbs and with some steep gradients, the trail is relatively smooth (i.e., no scrambling about rocks and such) and fairly well marked. I found this one the easiest. You can start to get good vistas by going up about a third to half of the way.

The second one I hiked was the Box Canyon. This one follows a small creek for most of the way. It requires some dexterity throughout and a little bit of scrambling up boulders right at the end. Although you don’t get the wide vistas with this trail (because you’re boxed in a canyon most of the way) you get an intimate look at the rising cliff walls as well as colorful images in the stream and streambeds. The trail switches between the creek banks requiring stepping onto rocks and jumping over the water.

The third one I hiked, and the one I didn’t complete to its end, was the Kitchen Mesa. It is relatively easy for the first half before the trail hits the base of the mesa. At this point the trail becomes increasingly steep, rocky at times, and loose and sandy at other times. The trail winds up the steep incline of the mesa until it reaches the cliff face. At this point progress consists of scrambling and climbing rocks and boulders. The very last part of this first half concludes by scrambling up a crevice in the cliff face which isn’t quite vertical. I found climbing up far more difficult than coming back down the same. After reaching the top I lost the trail after about 200-300 yards. Upon examining the satellite image from Google Maps I got an idea of where the trail went afterwards. What I did instead was go to my left (to the edge of the bottom of the sideways “U”) and took in the vista from there before coming down. This was by far the most strenuous and technical of the trails.

On Saturday morning I set my alarm to awake for the sunrise. And what a great sunrise it was. I literally ran/jogged up the Chimney Rock trail until I got to a good vista. (The Moves app on my iPhone recorded me averaging 4.6 mph on a course that was at least half uphill.) And then later in the day I went up the trail again because the clouds were so fantastic.

What I learned from my hiking is that I feel like I’m still in very good physical shape. I have good strength and stamina, my speed seems to be pretty good, and I don’t seem to have any problems with agility or balance. I am still willing to tackle physically demanding challenges and take reasonable risks. So I’m not that old yet Smile.

There is no cell phone coverage here (except for a few isolated spots depending on carrier) and WiFi is limited to two buildings. You might think you would miss the always-on connection, but really, that is not the case. It is kind of refreshing to have to intentionally seek out an online connection a few times a day and just know that the world can continue to spin around while you are disconnected.

It’s been quite a few years when I’ve been really had the chance to spend hours on photography over a span of a week. I truly enjoyed the time I had. I’m told that autumn is one of the best times to be in New Mexico with the aspens changing color and the weather still amenable to outdoor activities. I would like to return here again during that season.

Because this was the off-season, it was fairly quiet at the Ranch. There were only a couple of other workshops going on at this time. The most crowded I saw was maybe 40-50 (including staff) in the dining hall at one time. I’m told that during the summer high season there can be 450-500 guests plus many more staff and volunteers. I think I’ll stick to the off-season.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Review: Transformed–A New Way of Being Christian

Transformed: A New Way of Being ChristianTransformed: A New Way of Being Christian by Caesar Kalinowski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Living Missionally (Without Becoming Obnoxious) in the Modern World.

When I requested this book, I expected to receive a fairly standard, traditional discipleship fare. By that I mean more exhortations to obedience to God's ways and developing the fruit (or far too often, mistakenly, fruits - plural) of the Spirit so that I, as a Christian individual, could have impact in the world while not falling to its traps. I was expecting more exhortations to introspection and corresponding guilt that accompanies it. (Oh, none of the discipleship works ever say that's their intention, but really, that's what is usually the result from my experience.) Let's just say I've had too many negative experiences with so-called discipleship books and courses and seminars.

I was very pleasantly surprised to discover Transformed: A New Way of Being Christian by Caesar Kalinowski is quite unlike that. Caesar desire to motivate Christians to get away from the hyper-individualistic mindsets and into missional communities. He wants to get Christians to stop seeing the world as a place that is utterly fallen and evil and the church as a fortress of protection from the world. He wants Christians to exit the fortress (my metaphor) and make church communities happen among the world. He wants Christians to live their lives in the world.

The first part of the book deals with who we are when we enter the family of God and call ourselves Christians. Too often Christianity is presented in a fortress mindset where the church is an escape from the world and a place to hang on until we "arrive in heaven." Whatever evangelism happens is a raid into the world to bring back "captives" for God.

One of the difficult questions that I've been hearing in the church group I'm with is how does one live a Christian life that is modeled after Jesus and the apostles? Is that kind of lifestyle only applicable to people of that time? How can we realistically live in a way where we share things, work for the common good, and reject the idolatry of individualism that is so prevalent, even in the church? Transformed goes a long way to providing a set of positive responses to these questions.

For Caesar, the answer is not found in church, but in Jesus. Christians become a part of "a family of missionary servants, sent as disciples who make disciples." He writes that this is our new identity. Along with a number of other writers that I've read, Caesar makes the point that Christians are no longer "sinners," and not even "saved sinners" in identity. Christians are saints who are part of God's family. Christians still sin, but identity is no longer "sinner." This makes all the difference in how Christians see themselves and their brothers and sisters.

The Christian's identity is not found in what "we do." Her identity is based on what Jesus Christ has already done. His identity is based on his relationship to others as a member of a family, as a missionary, as servants, and as disciples. This is part two of the book.

Too often Christianity is defined through beliefs and doctrines, by what he does in church, and by whether or not she has personally accepted Jesus into her life. Caesar describes how a Christian cannot be one unless he is in relationship to other human beings as well. Far too often this relationship is defined as something that is primarily found through church - attendance at services and participation in programs. Caesar challenges his readers to think of church as happening primarily outside of the walls of a fixed building and outside fixed schedules of worship.

Caesar suggests that Christians have misunderstood what "discipleship" means. He writes that it is usually understood as taking a series of courses, going through a book, listening to lectures (sermons), etc. on topics that are supposed to be essential and helpful to grow an individual's spirituality toward maturity. Traditional discipleship postulates that once a person has the right information, he will live a better life.

Caesar takes a look at John 8:31-32 and suggests that it is in fact the other way around. People learn a better way to live by modeling what they see as a better life. And through modeling, they begin to understand, accept, and believe the principles (truth and doctrines) underlying the better way.

It is upon this premise that the rest of the book is written. Caesar describes how he has practiced this in his Christian community (church) called Soma. He uses stories and examples from his life to illustrate and explain what he terms the "rhythms" of how Christians can live missionally in today's world. These rhythms are: telling and listening to stories; listening to God through scripture and prayer; eating together; offering blessings through words, actions, and gifts; throwing parties and celebrating with one another; and taking time to rest and re-create.

Towards the end of each chapter Caesar has a section where he acknowledges that the principles in that chapter are not always easy to live out, that there may be questions and areas that are not black or white, and provides ways of thinking through the difficulties. The end of each chapter includes questions for discussion. In the spirit of the book, I suspect it would be best to gather a group together to discuss them together.

One of the things I liked best in Transformed is toward the end of the chapter "Celebrate" where Caesar writes that if we have been redeemed, if our lives have been redeemed, instead of running away from culture and its abuses, we ought to go in there and put in the effort to redeem them. Just as Paul engaged with the culture around him wherever he went, we ought to be doing the same. When we retreat from culture and its sins (retreating into the church fortress) we are inadvertently sending the message that there are things in the world that even God cannot redeem because it has been so perverted beyond redemption - we send the message that the gospel is not big enough. And if the gospel isn't big enough, is it really big enough for the issues that I'm facing personally?

The kind of community Caesar describes is one that is very fluid and open. This is the one area where I personally had difficulties, not because I disagreed with the ideas and principles, but because I am an extreme introvert who needs a lot of alone time. I could see how Caesar's model could work for outgoing, extroverted people. I looked but didn't find discussion on good ways on how to adapt and fit the model to introverted personalities. I'm pretty sure he doesn't expect introverts to become extroverts, but I wish there was more discussion on this question.

Overall I found the contents of the Transformed to be excellent. It changes the way a Christian sees herself. It changes how a Christian approaches discipleship. It changes how he defines and practices church. In a very real way it transforms the ways of the "apostolic church" into something that can work out in 21st century Western societies. I did not find (from my perspective) anything that would be a major theological roadblock. I think it will appeal to a broad Christian audience, whatever their theological or denominational persuasion.

(This review is based on an ARC supplied by the publisher through NetGalley.)

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Monday, February 03, 2014

Book Review: Loveology–discussion of marriage and sex from a soft-complementarian

Loveology: God. Love. Marriage. Sex. and the Never-Ending Story of Male and Female.Loveology: God. Love. Marriage. Sex. and the Never-Ending Story of Male and Female. by John Mark Comer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From an Egalitarian: Some very good points and some questionable ones.

Loveology, by John Mark Comer, is a study of what the Bible teaches about love and intimate relationships from one theological perspective. I say this because the Mr. Comer writes from a soft-complementarian position in regards to gender roles. He holds to conservative positions on marriage and family, sexual practices, and LGBTQ issues. However, in my reading of the book, he does not appear quite so rigid when it comes to his hermeneutics of the Bible. He takes a position that is much open to reading text through cultural lenses, making evaluations on whether what is found is descriptive or prescriptive, and where it does not conflict with what he perceives as non-negotiable "truths" he will take into account present-day culture for application purposes.

As one who takes egalitarian positions and gender questions and as one who takes a far more progressive hermeneutic, I find it difficult to assign this book a rating. If I take the position of his intended audience - moderately conservative evangelicals - I'd rate this in the four to five (out of five) range. Rating it from my personal perspective and usefulness to me, it would fall to around three because I did not think he engaged opposing viewpoints sufficiently. Mr. Comer provides endnotes, and I wished he would have provided more counterpoints and arguments there, if not in the main body of the text.

That said, there were several good points that were made that did not rely on or connote gender roles or sexual orientations.

Mr. Comer lays a good foundation when he introduces love as both feeling and action. I think that Christians are sometimes fearful of feelings and are afraid to make positive comments about them. Here, caveats are provided, but feelings are affirmed as a good and necessary part of love. To be human is to have emotions. We were created to love, and emotions are a part of who we are.

Mr. Comers offers four reasons for marriage as it was originally intended by God: Friendship, Gardening (vocational partnership in the journey of life), Sex, and Family. There may be quibbles about some of the details that are found in the book, but overall these make good sense.

Some other valuable points he makes include
• There is no "one" person that will complete you
• Don't idolize childlessness or having children
• Don't think either marriage or singleness are God's preference
• Don't marry for the purpose of achieving happiness
• Sex is good - it's from God - it's to be enjoyed

Where things get problematic is when Mr. Comer writes about gender roles. It actually starts out well about a fifth of the way into the book. He discusses the term ezer as an equal helper, and that the term is also used of God. But just around the halfway mark in his discussion of the Song of Songs, he makes the observations that women want men to take them away and for men to chase after them, as described in the poetry. From here he draws the conclusion that it is man's job to lead things, including romance. He bases this conclusion also on the creation order found in Genesis 2. He does clarify that "to lead" does not mean to boss, to dominate, etc. He reminds readers that the Bible has been used to excuse abuses.

A few chapters later Mr. Comer devotes a whole chapter to gender differences and roles. He writes that historically women have been treated badly based on gender stereotypes, but that is no reason to throw out all the ideas about gender differentiation, including the idea that God designed and created into human genders different roles. He acknowledges that God is genderless and that feminine descriptions are attributed to God. He even agrees that "feminist" can be a good term. But based on his interpretation of the creation account, he concludes that because Adam (the man) was created first and given the command to work the earth, it is the male gender's responsibility to lead. He reads this same idea into Paul's writings. He reads the Genesis 2 account as a literal, historical even that is applicable to all subsequent marriages.

At the beginning I noted that I perceived Mr. Comer as a soft-complementarian. I say this because he specifically limits male leadership to marriage and (possibly - it is not clear from his writing) the church (although if you look up the church that he leads, you will only see men in the leadership positions). He acknowledges that the command to "rule the earth" and "to be fruitful and multiply" apply equally to men and women, but that men were created to lead.

In the following chapter he tacitly introduces the counterargument that gender roles are a result of the Fall, but dismisses it without much explanation. He writes that the curse of the Fall was not that gender roles themselves became skewed and corrupt, but that their applications became corrupt so that men began to domineer over and abuse women. In discussing Ephesians 5 and the household codes, he describes how Paul's version is different from traditional ones encountered during that time; that how radical it was in assigning responsibility to those higher on the hierarchy to care for and respect those on the lower rungs. But he continues to see the household codes and the command for submission ("Wives, submit…") as still precisely and literally applicable as it was written. He defends his conclusions by giving the traditional response that if a husband truly respects and loves his wife in a self-giving way, the wife will have no problem submitting. He acknowledges that churches have often been the worst places for women, but does not see the theology of gender roles as contributing to the problem.

The final chapter deals with sexual orientation - the LGBTQ issue. On this point Mr. Comer is far less nuanced. He acknowledges that churches have treated non-heterosexual people badly. He acknowledges that sex should not the biggest "sin" issue in Christianity. He does not view homosexual orientation as sin, but it is sin to act upon it. He differentiates between "who you are" and "what you do." I feel he does disservice to himself by parroting cliché arguments and failing to engage both the science and the complexities inherent. In his arguments, particularly in the discussion of sexual orientation, I see Mr. Comer falling into the trap of logical fallacies, especially that of the "slippery slope" in order to make his arguments.

For me, I found about the first half of the book to contain useful elements. The last half, although interesting to read the arguments for theologies of complementarianism and heterosexual-only marriages, it was something that I did not find useful otherwise.

The intended audience, as I noted earlier, seems to be moderately conservative evangelicals who hold to a more nuanced interpretation of scripture than a strict literalist reading. Those who hold to a very literal reading, and fundamentalists, will have some points of large disagreements. And likewise, as I have described, progressive and liberal Christians will have points of agreement but will likely be turned off by the gender and sexual orientation discussions.

(This review is based on an Advance Review Copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.)

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