Thursday, July 24, 2014

Launching out from Lake Toba, Indonesia

After a several month hiatus, Marathonangel returns with this guest post from Dr. Wayne L. Nieminen (a.k.a. my husband) returning to Hong Kong from an LTS faculty trip to Indonesia:


Have you toiled all night near the shore in vain?
Push away from the shore, launch out:
Where the flood is deep cast your nets again.
Push away from the shore, launch out;
There a blessing waits your soul to take,
Haste away from the barren strand;
Toil no more where the surges break;
“Launch out’ is your Lord’s command. 

After June 2014 graduation celebrations, members of the Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTS) faculty journeyed to Northern Sumatra, Indonesia for our annual retreat.   We visited church leaders and LTS alumni who now serve a marvelous array of institutions within the Gereja Kristen Protestant Indonesia Church (GKPI – 355,000 members ) and Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (HKBP – with over 4.1 million members).  We were moved by these church ministries to the blind, orphans, Moslems and schools for teaching and preaching, training pastors and deaconesses.   A vibrant holistic ministry of Word, Sacrament, Service, Education and Song was evident to all.  

 One early evening we found ourselves on a passenger ferry crossing Lake Toba on our way to Samosir Island.   Lake Toba is the result of the eruption of a “super volcano” which took place about 75,000 years.  It is said to have been the greatest volcanic eruption within the last 25 million years of the earth’s history.  Samosir island formed from the cone of the volcano and is surrounded by a lake that is nearly 100 kilometers long, 30 kilometers wide and 500 meters deep.  This extraordinary geological event is said to have been responsible for changing the climate of the earth. 

 The sun was about to set when we boarded the ferry.  We faced a warm but growing headwind.  Our HKBP guides sung hymns as the captain navigated the choppy waters and the Southern Cross constellation seemed to travel with us above our heads.  I later read that the “crux” constellation was “circumpolar” – always above the horizon in the southern hemisphere.  Sailors used it as navigational aid – a guidepost.

I remembered an old hymn, “Launch Out.” written by Rev. James Bruce Mackay (author of some 60 hymns) who lived from 1861-1940.   It is one of the many nautical hymns composed in the missionary era.  Those hymn writers knew about capricious seas, rogue waves, incoming swells, gusts of winds, typhoons, as well as the sea’s calmness - The sea was a metaphor for the unpredictability and arbitrariness of life.

Nevertheless, MacKay believed that the Savior continually called his disciples to “push away from the shore, launch out.”  We, the LTS Hong Kong faculty, were witnesses to the Indonesian churches “launching out” through its many ministries.  The kingdom of God is emerging across the globe with men and women dreaming big dreams - reimagining the world.  And we, as teachers, felt privileged and grateful to have a (small) role in God’s movement in these churches and in this country.

The refrain for MacKay’s hymn is:  “Launch out, launch out; Push away from the shore, launch out;  God’s grace flows free, like a might sea, And the Master calls, “Launch out!”  May we as the Lutheran Theological Seminary – faculty, students and staff  together -  continue to “launch out” !!! 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Dancing a Prayer of Sadness

We received word of a terrible, tragic  death of the 24 year old friend of one of our sons.
Our world will not be the same.
This is the kid who lived down the street. Who slept over at our house in a pile of boys in the basement. Who had a world class science project. Who got up in the dark winter mornings to get to 6 a.m. team wrestling practices at the school. An athlete and a scholar.

Whose Mom & Dad took him to church, showed up at every school event, whose Mom & Dad loved him madly. Who was our son's good friend, and fun. A law school student.

Who was a Christian. Who, yes, messed with drugs and alcohol, which everyone expected was a passing thing. Maybe it was or wasn't, but somehow this bright young man lost sight of all light, and got desperate. And took his own life.

Our son called us, facetime, across the continents and ocean. This is when it's hard to be so far away. There are times when to see your kid on a little phone screen is not enough.

In Christian tradition, it's Lent, and at the LTS chapel we entered into the season of dust and ashes with (of all things) dancing.

Southeast Asian dancing is expressive, from the arch of the foot to the plane of the outstretched hand.
Just so, our spirits try to express sadness, and anger, and confession, and more sadness, in prayer.
It is for just a death like this,  that we Christians insistently cling to hope beyond all hope: That there will, in fact, be full redemption, a rising up, of this particular and beloved life, the good friend of our son.

In Romans 8:26, St. Paul writes:  the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Eight Horses of the Bible - A meditation in honor of the Lunar New Year 2014


Happy Chinese New Year of the Horse!

The New Year is supposed to bring Spring with it, but it's still very much Winter in Hong Kong: 
Many consecutive days of gray rain and temperatures of 45F outside means winter coats are needed inside, in our unheated seminary classrooms.

And yet, students smile and "firecracker flowers" brighten the dull landscape. Good things are abloom, even in the midst of a gray Hong Kong winter!

Meanwhile, check out the excerpts (below) from a recent sermon by yours truly, on Biblical horse imagery for the New Year of the Horse. And remember:

Some trust in chariots
 and some in horses,

    but we trust in 
the name of the Lord our God.
-- Psalm 20:7

Excerpts from a Sermon:            Eight Horses from the Bible 

Rev. Christa von Zychlin
Lunar New Year of the Horse
Season of Epiphany

In honor of Chinese New Year of the Horse,
here are eight horses of the Bible who still speak to us today:


            “Do you give the horse its strength
    or clothe its neck with a flowing mane?
20 Do you make it leap like a locust,
    striking terror with its proud snorting?
21 It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength,
    and charges into the fray.
22 It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing;            -- Job 30

In these verses, God himself is speaking to Job.  Job, who has suffered beyond what any human being should suffer. And it is a strange comfort to Job, but it is a comfort. Sometimes, there is no answer to pain, sorrow or suffering. But God says, look at my Creation, and don’t doubt me. Just look at the horse, its muscles its power its strength, its joy, its beauty. God says, I am the God of that horse.

 And I am God of you, Job, even in all of your incomprehensible suffering


31 The horse is made ready for the day of battle,
    but victory rests with the Lord. -- Proverbs 21:31.

The battle horse reminds us it is good to prepare for things. We will have battles in life and we’d better get ready to fight them. So let’s get our spiritual armor in place, but make sure we’re fighting as Christ did – not with violence and hate, but with the armor of God, the weapons of the Spirit.

and still, even with the best preparations,  success is not in our hands, but is with God… and that’s more than ok, it is good!



I liken you, my darling, to a mare
    among Pharaoh’s chariot horses.  --Song of Solomon 1:9

 Valentines’ Day is coming up and some of you men may want to use this line for the ladies…

 or maybe not!!

 The Song of Solomon is a love song celebrating the sexual love between a man and a woman, -- and that’s a good thing.

But it’s also always been understood as an allegory – the allegory of love between God and our soul, our deepest self.

 God sees each one of us, individually, with eyes of love. Like a bridegroom for his one & only bride, like a bride for her one & only husband.

Among all the horses, the horseman sees this one special mare.

Among all the people God has created, God also sees you, in your most inward and personal self,  and you are uniquely beautiful to him.


And yet and yet - It is because we are so precious and beautiful in God’s sight that He gets so enraged at the hurt we inflict on other people and on all of creation.

”None of them repent of their wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Each pursues their own course like a horse charging into battle.”  -- Jeremiah 8:6

In the preceding chapter (7) the prophet Jeremiah makes a list of sins that really matter to God:

-- the sin of oppressing the alien:           
who are the “aliens” (strangers, weirdo’s, uninvited ones) in your neighborhood?

-- the sin of neglecting the fatherless and widowed:                       
what are we doing for  the fatherless  and the orphaned, throughout China and Southeast Asia?  How are vulnerable single women – today’s “widows” young and old – being treated, exploited, or sold all over in today’s economies?

-- the sin of following other gods:
where do you and I pour out our offerings, what does our credit card or our bank statement or our business practices say about who the gods are in our lives?

In which way are you and I like horse number 4, “Each pursues their own course like a horse charging into battle”

Horse # 4 is the horse that leads to spiritual death, each of us fighting our own battles, dashing about like horse without a rider. We call ourselves  Christians, but in so many ways live as if we have no Saviour to lead us.

Horse #4 calls us to repentance.

HORSE #5, 6, 7, 8

 I looked, and behold, a white horse… a red horse… a black horse… a pale horse…”  -- Revelation 6:1-8

What destination does living apart from God bring us to?

Sin has already (I believe) unleashed the parabolic horses of Revelation 6 into our world, the four horses of the apocalypse:

the white horse -- bent on conquest, represents the sin of power-grabbing.

the red horse, the color of blood, represents war. God revealed in Christ hates war and violence between humans; for Christians, there is no such thing as a righteous human war.

the black horse is the horse of famine and scarcity, but also represents unfair trade practices, so prices for ordinary food is high, so people at the bottom of the economic pyramids have to work all day just in order to eat, so as go back to work another day. Meanwhile, the rich get richer.

The last horse is the pale horse of death.

Those are the eight horses of the Bible:

Ah, but there is one more horse. Surprise! There is a 9th horse to consider.
(This is the last time a horse is mentioned in the Bible)


The old visionary John continues speaking of what he once saw in a vision:

“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.
His eyes like blazing fire, on his head crowns, dressed in a robe dipped in blood” – Revelation 19:11

Whose blood is He wearing?  It is his own blood – unlike any other conqueror, this One wears his own blood.

Written on his robe he has this name:

(Do you know His name?)


The final horse of the Bible, the ninth horse, is the horse on which the Son of Man is seated. He comes as the one who wins all battles, who brings all justice, who leads his people forward into the New Heaven and the New Earth where peace reigns, where justice lives, where love of neighbor is practiced with imagination and strength.

Horses of the Bible.  We have much to live and learn and to DO as Christians, living in this New Year of the Horse.

As a website about the Chinese understanding of the horse put it:

 Horses can give people a ride to their destination. Therefore, the horse is not only a symbol of traveling, but also a sign of speedy success.”

May God give us good travels, a great destination and the right kind of success in this New Year of the Horse. Amen.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Seminary Olympics... for the sport of it

The opening ceremonies
Seminary Olympics held in the yard of our home in Hong Kong with inter-Asian and inter-national students. .... something we first experienced at LSTChicago many years ago. The Hong Kong version included the 1) cardboard slalom doubles event, 2) edible medals, and 3) fastest recitation of the books of the Bible (in one's own language). Below are some of the top contenders, can you recognize the languages? Can you guess who won?

Notice the fancy footwear for the "slalom doubles"

Alas, the edible medals did not last the night...



Sometimes it's good just to have fun together!

You've all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. 
All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. 
You're after one that's gold eternally.

-- St. Paul writing in I Corinthians 9:24-25  THE MESSAGE BIBLE

Friday, January 3, 2014

A New Year and passport troubles in Southeast Asia

So this is how we started 2014... in a certain city in Southeast Asia along the Mekong, looking out of the hotel room at these rooftops, where a cat prowled for mice on a collapsed and rotted building just next to our room with its air-conditioning and room service menu.

We had had the following conversation with a couple of our LTS seminary alumni. One of the ways their small "start-up" church is serving is by weekly visits to the local hospital, to bring meals to patients. The hospital does not provide any food, that's the family's job.

"What if they don't have any family who can do that?"

The answer can swiftly.

"Then they die. That's the reality here in ________. If you don't have family who can take care of you, then you die."

This young couple is leading a young church which is intent on making a difference in the local community. 90% of their church members are university students, and most of these young Christians are first generation Christians, coming from non-religious and cultural Buddhist backgrounds.

The pastor of the church is asked to come in for questioning by the local authorities, on a pretty regular basis. So far, he's been looking at it as an opportunity to explain his church's special emphasis on serving the neighborhood, trying to do what Jesus did, helping the hungry and hurting, sharing basic ethics and teachings with other young adults and couples.

However the situation is tricky, and things could change at any time for this small but not-yet "official" Christian community, in a part of the world where freedom of religion is far from a given.

As if to emphasize the complexities of life in this part of the world, our oldest son was suddenly told he could not leave the country (and return with us to Hong Kong) because of a small tear in his passport So our family had to split up -- I returned with our other two sons and Wayne stayed behind to deal with the sudden bureaucratic nightmare. Long story short, thank God they were able to return to Hong Kong in time for eldest son to catch his flight back to home and life in NYC.
Does this look like an international trouble maker to you?

So, we had an interesting start to the New Year 2014!!! And have lots to think about, and hopes that in some way our work here can contribute to a critically conscious, yet also kinder and more hopeful world.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

(the Prophet Micah 6:8 ... also encapsulating some of the basic ethical principles taught by Jesus)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Up onto Jesus' shoulders in Vietnam

Our last day of 2013 started on the beach in Vung Tau, Vietnam, where we are taking a grace-filled (dare I admit desperately needed?)  family vacation.

Vung Tau is home to the largest statue of Jesus in the world, at 32 meters it is six meters higher than the one in Rio (Brazil).

We had try to climb up the statue  two days ago, walking up the small mountain only to discover the stairway within the statue is closed for two hours in the middle of the day, exactly when we had arrived, of course.

So today was the day. Again we went by the smaller Biblical statues lower on the mountain... depicting some of the happiest prophets I've ever seen. I'm sure I've never seen a Moses with a big grin on his face before, although it mirrors something I once saw in Jerusalem, at the Wailing Wall, where grey-bearded orthodox Jews had gathered to dance their joy in commemoration of Shavuot, the giving of the Ten Commandments.

There's also one of the jolliest depictions of the preaching of the Beatitudes I've ever seen. And why not? Jesus was talking about deep happiness, blessedness, joy. Maybe a bird or two and lambs and a batch of kids did frolic, to hear about God's topsy-turvy hand-out of blessings to the poor, the sad, and those reaching out to taste a better world.

And then we came to the foot of Jesus: Note the scale of things... those are people peering out over the top of his shoulders!
It was a bit of a squeeze to walk up the last 133 steps. We were glad we were the only Western-sized tourists that day - we definitely would have been in trouble otherwise.

And at the top we were rewarded by a view of Jesus with Asian eyes, and the sense of seeing things from the perspective of resting on His shoulders. Hmmm. Not a bad way to look back upon the year that was, 2013, and ahead to the year starting up in a few hours, 2014.

Jesus according to Matthew 11:28-30

The Message (MSG)
28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Happy New Year everybody!!!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Peace on Earth -- reporting from Vietnam

“True peace is not a balancing of opposing forces. It’s not a lovely facade which conceals conflicts and divisions...
Peace calls for daily commitment." 
 -- Pope Francis, Christmas Day 2013

As an American visiting Vietnam as a tourist, Pope Francis' words ring in my ears as our family tours first  the Cu Chi Tunnels (said to be over 200 km long) by which the Vietnamese evaded American military, and where now children - beautifully incongruously - scamper over tanks.

Life went on, underground, with systems for cooking, sewing, medical care, and the devising
of weapons to kill the "American enemy"... some of whom were neighbors to Wayne and I, growing up as American kids in the 1960's

At an entrance to the tunnel system, portions of which
have been enlarged so Western-sized tourists can enter.
 We then went to the War Remnants Museum, which grimly reminded us of the millions killed in the war and the on-going aftereffects of land mines and chemicals used on Vietnamese soil, causing human mutilation and birth defects.

Wayne and I are of an age where we well remember neighbors and church families sending off young men to fight what some at the time thought was a noble war for freedom, what others believed was a horrible mistake, what all knew was a war fought, like every war, at the terrible cost of God-beloved human lives.

 May the One we name the "Prince of Peace" make Christians the first and the foremost to embrace that "daily commitment" for peace in the New Year 2014.

So then let us pursue the things which make for peace 
and the building up of one another.
Romans 14:19