Sunday, September 23, 2012

Counting Your Name

When asked to introduce herself, my daughter has begun to announce herself in a "name, rank, serial number" fashion: "Gwendolyn Hope Tyler, Big Sister, Three and a Half" [years old].

Recently, as we made our way toward bedtime, I asked Gwendolyn to pick out three stories to read. She replied, "Three and a half?"

Assuming this meant we would have four books, I assented and she went off to her room.

When I got there, a tall stack of books--many more than four--stood on the bed.

"Gwendolyn! I said three and a half books."

Gwendolyn gave me a look as if I were a bumbling dolt. "No, let me show you." She began to take books off the pile, counting them as she spoke: "Gwendolyn. Hope. Ty. Ler. Big. Sis. Ter. Three. And. A. Half." Eleven books, one for each toddling syllable in her title.

I laughed with joy. And then we sat down to read--the top four books on the pile.

~ emrys

Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Father's Hand

Remember wide-ruled paper, with red lines for the margins? Remember putting a header with your name, the date, and the class on every sheet? It seems that this was the procedure as far back as 1948, when my dad took his 5th grade spelling tests:

This is yet another little find from the memorabilia I inherited from my dad. What strikes me more than the familiarity of the format and paper style is that of the handwriting. If we changed the names and dates to match my own 5th grade year, I could not now tell the difference between my dad's grammar-school penmanship and mine. By the time I knew him, Dad's handwriting was physician's scrawl; I've got my own peculiar version of chicken-scratch. But our young hands drew such familiar letters.

Is this a result of standardized training in penmanship (that did not change much between 1948 and 1986)? Or is much of handwriting in fact genetic?

~ emrys

Friday, September 07, 2012

Book Review: Transforming Evangelism

Transforming Evangelism, by David Gortner (2008), is one of the Episcopal Church's recent attempts to clarify and refashion the art of introducing others to Jesus Christ. The book covers a wide swath of theory about evangelism but does not neglect to go deep into practice. It offers not only well-thought-out grounds for how Christians offer the gospel of Jesus Christ, but also case studies and creative imaginings regarding how effective evangelism looks.

Like many books on evangelism in the North American Church today, Transforming Evangelism arises from a repugnant reaction to a widespread perception about evangelism. Many evangelistic efforts assert Christianity in terms that strike our culture as offensive. An extreme example of this trend is the annual group of believers who follow the Rose Parade in Pasadena with signs reading "Jesus or Hell" and "Repent: God Hates [choose your category]." As a result of this--and probably many less stark examples--a good proportion of both Christians and non-Christians believe that evangelism is, at its heart, an exercise in condemnation. Therefore regardless of what may come after it, the appearance of the word "evangelism" strikes fear into the hearts of people far and wide.

Another off-putting belief about evangelism, at least from the perspective of Christians, is that one does it out of duty. Jesus said to spread the good news, so I must do it out of obedience. Gone are the motivations of wonder and excitement of which we read in the New Testament. Instead has come a sense of obligation. One must pay taxes; one must go to the dentist; one must spread the good news. Transforming Evangelism seeks also to address this tendency in Christianity.

So, as the book's title intimates, evangelism must somehow be transformed into something that we Christians can do in good conscience. It seeks to re-establish the motivation for evangelism in gratitude to God for Christ's work in our lives. And it seeks to describe a way in which evangelism can be an offer to rather than and assertion upon the un-Christian. I found these goals proper and timely for the Church I know today.

Many of us who are disciples of Christ must examine our hearts to find what the Spirit is doing there on a regular basis. When we do, I believe, as this book asserts, that gratitude will become the proper and joyful foundation of every response we offer to God--from service to prayer to evangelism. Telling people they should believe in Jesus Christ solely out of duty seems hollow and pale compared to the powerful expansive witness that I see in the scriptures, and in a significant portion of my brothers and sisters of the faith. We do not invite people to cram themselves into a rigorous world of black and white; in Christ we find a celebration of God's explosive color. Transforming Evangelism brings this point out well.

In responding to the twin bugbears of evangelism, however, Transforming Evangelism threatens to toss the infant out with the slurry. The book attempts to redefine evangelism as something that is going on all the time in every person's life. (Here I might add that the book pulls up only short of a panentheistic view of the divine, which may lie behind the present problem.) To evangelize, then, is to get on board with what God is doing. This broad definition becomes so wide as to lose its point in the book. Witness the book's recitation of the story of St. Martin of Tours: Martin gave a beggar his cloak, then had a dream in which Christ affirmed his action. The book calls this an "evangelistic action" which transformed Martin himself. While the language of the scriptures would certainly affirm Martin's work as love, and would affirm Christ's appearance to him as theophany, it would not use the term "evangelism" for what happened.

The book also introduces the term "evangelistic listening." To listen to someone's story is to do evangelism. While listening is an essential skill of Christians, and preparation for an offer of the good news requires listening, "evangelistic listening" in the sense used here is uselessly oxymoronic. An essential part of the definition of "evangelism" is announcement, proclamation, telling (not just asking, listening, affirming). The good news of chicken on sale for $1.50 per pound is something one can proclaim to another. If I listen to your woes about only finding chicken for $2.30 per pound, and affirm your grief, and maybe offer to give you extra work so you can afford that expensive chicken, I may have served you well. But I have not offered you good news that will break into your chicken-buying world and introduce new possibilities.

We cannot shy away from the fact that evangelism is an introduction to a Person, and therefore has concrete, objective content. While true that some may not accept the invitation; while true that some--for their own reasons which ought not to trace back to our behavior--will be offended by Christ; while true that we will always be able to look back on a conversation and see ways we would rather have spoken; it is nonetheless true that evangelism is a proclamation of Jesus Christ. It is an announcement of his name, his lordship, and his role as savior. We may transform methods of evangelism. We may ask God to transform our hearts to do evangelism. But we may not transform this root of the good news without causing the vine to wither and die.

~ emrys