Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter solstice

[By] the tender mercy of our God
. . . the sunrise shall dawn upon us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79, ESV margin; cf. RSV)

Today is December 21, the winter solstice. Tonight will mark the longest night of the entire calendar year here in the northern hemisphere--just over fifteen hours here in Michigan, to be exact. Although it was temporarily denounced by the Church as syncretic, I think it's beautifully fitting that the celebration of the Messiah's historical birth has been joined with this solar phenomenon. (The solstice, though actually occurring any time between December 20-23, was marked by December 25 on the old Julian calendar.) Though this is the longest night, from tomorrow onward the daylight hours will know only increase.

Christ comes to us in like fashion. From his coming onward, the night of sin, death, and the world's evils has no choice but to flee before his dawn of his coming. "The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining" (1 John 2:8). Hence he is worshiped as the Dayspring. Jesus is born quietly into the darkness of night and the tyranny of oppression--Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because they lived in forced submission to the authority of Rome--but with him comes the light of forgiveness, freedom, peace, victory, and the knowledge of God. We know not all of it yet; but we have seen the rays of light peeking over the horizon, and we live in hope that the full light of day is merely a matter of patient waiting. "He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon.' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" (Revelation 22:20)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Worshiping God in chaos

A few weeks ago at Franklin Street, pastor Joe Brown from WEPC took his turn in the preaching rotation. (Being a newly-planted church of some forty-odd people, we don’t yet have a full-time pastor, but we’re on the search.) The two texts he chose were Revelation 21:1-5 and Psalm 24.

Apparently in the Hebrew frame of mind, there were two enemies to true life: emptiness and chaos. Yet from the beginning of the Scriptures, we see a Jehovah who is actively filling a void and subduing its disorder. “In the beginning . . . the earth was without form [chaotic, disordered, uncontrolled] and void [empty], and darkness was over the face of the deep. [But!] the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-3). The universe was an uncontrolled sea, stormy and black, lacking blessing and unfit for man to dwell in. Indeed, the seas have always been the enemy of mankind, a representation of all that we cannot subdue or control, all that threatens to drown us choke the life out of us.*

“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof . . . for he has founded it upon the sea and established it upon the rivers.”

This phrase “the earth’s fullness” refers to more than just all that’s in the earth; it means that the earth is itself supposed to be “full”—full of God’s goodness, his life, his riches, his abundance. The psalter employs language of fullness, overflow, and abundance to show forth life (e.g., Psalm 65:9-12). Yet our lives often feel empty, lacking in meaning, in hope, in vigor. We run from one pleasure and pursuit to another, yet we feel . . . empty. Where is this plenitude of life?

At the same time, despite our best efforts, our lives are also out of control. We have chaos and disorder. The baby is crying; the casserole burns; your check bounces; you fall (read: step) into the same sins yet again; a loved one dies. When it rains, it pours. “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me” (Psalm 42:7). Who will come to still our seas and calm their waves?

“Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?”

The creation account of Genesis 1 may begin with chaos and void. But the story that follows—the story that introduces Yahweh and sets the tone for the rest of history—is, if nothing else, a hopeful story: for three “days” God gives shape and order to the universe, and for three days he works to fill the universe with bodies to give us time, light, and energy, plants for food, animals to help us, and—best of all—woman. (I’m sure some of you might instead be cursing God for that right now!)

The miracle of Christianity is not only that God has made the world, giving it order and fullness, but that he has personally entered it to save it from the death-curse brought on by the devil and by Adam’s sin, in which all humans share. God has come on the scene as the man Jesus of Nazareth, calming raging waters (Mark 4:35-41) and filling up our emptiness with “life to the full” (John 10:10 NIV).

Who is this King of glory? This King of glory is Jesus Christ: God incarnate and saving, “the LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8). This Rescuer has come to give us “life to the full,” a life lived in fellowship with our Maker and in his blessing as adopted and beloved children. He has broken the neck of the terrors of the deep and all that threatens our well-being, all that we cannot control and strips us of our life and hope, all that “comes only to kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10:10). He speaks peace into our chaotic lives, a peace he has sealed to us by his sacrificial death. He comes as the One “who fills all in all” and who himself fills us with God’s life and presence (Ephesians 1:23; Colossians 2:9-10). And though only those who have clean hands and a pure heart may ascend to the hill of Zion, enter her gates, and approach God in worship, Christ gives us his very own purity and righteousness to wear as festal garments—“blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of [our] salvation” (Psalm 24:5; cf. Isaiah 61:10)—and gives us his Spirit’s power to overcome the sins that we can’t subdue on our own. So we can confidently storm the gates of Zion and stride into the temple, seeking God’s face and fellowship. “They beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11).


* What stands in the way of the fleeing Israelites at their exodus from Egypt? The Red Sea, or whatever the Yam Suph really was. What threatens David and Jonah? Seas (see Psalm 69 and Jonah 2). From where does the evil beast come in Revelation 13? The sea. What does God finally eradicate in the new earth? The sea (Revelation 21:1). The salvation story is not only of making rivers to flow in a death-barren and –dry land; it is the story of wiping out the disorder, evil, and chaos that stand in the way of a life of peace and wholeness.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Bonhoeffer on waiting

Happy New Year!—the church liturgical year, that is. Every year it begins with the season of Advent. It is not yet Christmas (which is celebrated over the twelve days from December 25 until Epiphany on January 6), for advent means “coming.” The Christkindl (Christ child) isn’t here so soon; peace and goodwill haven’t yet been made incarnate. Like those faithful who had to wait for thousands of years for the Messiah to come his first time, Advent is a season to wait upon the promises of God that light our ways in darkness, flickering candles that point the way to the inbreaking of a greater dawn (Luke 1:78-79).

Like last year, I’m reading through a series of Advent and Christmas sermons by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose writings I’ve found to be extremely formative in some aspects of my life. Here is what he has to say about waiting in a sermon from December 2, 1928. The sermon is based upon Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

Celebrating Advent means learning to wait. Waiting is an art which our impatient age has forgotten. We want to pluck the fruit before it has had time to ripen. Greedy eyes are soon disappointed when what they saw as luscious fruit is sour to the taste. In disappointment and disgust they throw it away. The fruit, full of promise, rots on the ground. It is rejected without thanks by disappointed hands.

The blessedness of waiting is lost on those who cannot wait, and the fulfillment of promise is never theirs. They want quick answers to the deepest questions of life and miss the value of those times of anxious waiting, seeking with patient uncertainties until the answers come. They lose the moment when they answers are revealed in dazzling clarity.

Who has not felt the anxieties of waiting for the declaration of friendship or love? The greatest, the deepest, the most tender experiences in all the world demand patient waiting. This waiting is not in emotional turmoil, but gently growing, like the emergence of spring, like God’s laws, like the germinating of a seed.

Not all can wait—certainly not those who are satisfied, contented, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds! Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment. The celebration of Advent is possibly only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who can look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, Edwin Robertson, ed., tr., (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 20.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Where angels fear to tread . . . but for my sake they do

The two remaining people who actually read this blog, you know that I'm not dead. I just haven't had much to write about.

Until now, that is.

I have a girlfriend! Yikes! This is huge news to me; it has been over three years since that last was true. And because this is to me a very big deal with all sorts of ramifications and consequences, to use the words of
The Book of Common Prayer, "it should not be entered into unadvisedly or lightly." But nonetheless, I'm excited and hopeful for what may come. (Now, if we can just figure out that whole Richmond-Chicago technicality . . . .)

Olivia and me at Thanksgiving outside Chicago. Come on and feel the Illinoise!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Reformation Day!

In celebration of Reformation Day (October 31, 1517, was when Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg), I thought a few quotes celebrating the greatness of justification by faith alone apart from works would be apropos.

Now when a man has learned through the commandments to recognize his helplessness and is distressed about how he might satisfy the law—since the law must be fulfilled so that not a jot or tittle shall be lost, otherwise man will be condemned without hope—then, being truly humbled and reduced to nothing in his own eyes, he finds in himself nothing whereby he may be justified or saved. Here the second part of Scripture comes to our aid, namely, the promises of God which declare the glory of God, saying, “If you wish to fulfill the law and not covet, as the law commands, come, believe in Christ in whom grace, righteousness, peace, liberty, and all things are promised you. If you believe, you shall have all things; if you do not believe, you shall lack all things.” That which is impossible for you to accomplish by trying to fulfill all the works of the law—many and useless as they all are—you will accomplish quickly and easily through faith.
– Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty

It is clear that the justification which is unto eternal life Paul regards as consisting in our being constituted righteous, in receiving righteousness as a free gift, and this righteousness is none other than the righteousness of the one man Jesus Christ; it is the righteousness of his obedience. . . . Justification is thereby a constitutive act whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to our account and we are accordingly accepted as righteous in God’s sight.

– John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied

The specific quality of faith is that it receives and rests upon another, in this case Christ and his righteousness.

– Murray, Ibid.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nature red in tooth and claw

While running on Saturday morning I came across a squirrel lying on the rain-wet sidewalk a few miles from my apartment. It was on its stomach, with its four legs spread out somewhat on each side. I stopped to look at it. I thought it was already dead, but after a few seconds I saw its head move. The squirrel would intermittently gasp for breath through its red, bloody mouth—it must have fallen from the tall willow oak tree above—and try to muster the strength to crawl back to the tree. It was sometimes able to pick up its head and move a few of its scraggly limbs, but it could never move its emaciated body. I pitied it. I wanted badly to help if off the sidewalk and onto the grass near the tree or just put it out of its misery somehow. (I contemplated stomping on its head.) But I didn’t want to risk rabies, and I thought that my intervention would somehow be messing with the sacred order of nature itself.

Even before the squirrel expired, ants already began crawling upon their next food source. I was so angry at them for molesting this poor creature as it helplessly lied there dying. I found myself praying, asking God to rid it of the ants until it died—Give it is dignity!—and to put its life to a quick end.

How often, in our sanitized world, do we come face-to-face with something in the throes of death? We city dwellers and suburbanites are generations removed from the life of farms, where the seasons of weather and of death were the rule. We herd the elderly into nursing homes and the dying into remote floors of hospitals, trying to maintain a cheery outlook on life. Are we trying to evade death by keeping it out of sight? As I watched the squirrel writhe, its every noble attempt met with futility and grief, it struck me how truly ugly the whole affair was. How hideous is this Conqueror Worm! And if this was but the demise of a wet, scrawny rodent, how much more that of a human! Surely the whole of creation has been groaning in its futility and bondage to decay—the decay brought on by Adam’s sin, the sin that lives inside of me and of which I am both a recipient and active participant.

Oh, how we need the “hope of the glory of God,” the resurrection-hope in which we are saved!

On this mountain [the LORD] will destroy
the shroud that covers all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
(Isaiah 25:7-8a)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Old October

"All things on earth point home in old October: sailors to sea, travelers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken." -- Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River

On Saturday evening, as I walked around my neighborhood, I was trying to figure out what it was about October that makes me love it so much. Then I remembered this quote. I think it's so true. Something about the cold rain, about the falling leaves, about the brisk air reminds us: We are human. We are limited. Nature is bigger than us, and we can't control her. For all of our springtime curiosity and our summer exploration, we can't face life outdoors for so long. We need autumn to remind us that we're not solitary beings who can do it all and conquer the world. We're pointed back home in "old October."

But it's not that life is over for a season; it changes. The joys of cookouts, sunshine, and morning dew are traded for the welcome warmth of hearth and indoor lighting, of friends gathered close over a mug of warm cider. The point of the day that takes on meaning is when we come home in the evening: from school, from work, the coming together of people that happens in the winter as we leave the cold darkness and enter into the inner-room light.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Halloween: Lighthearted fun, or pagan sorcery?

I have lately been reading through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, bringing me across that ever-bizarre story of Saul and the spirit medium at Endor (1 Sam. 28). The Lord has by now rejected Saul as king and no longer answers his prayers and efforts to seek his God’s guidance. In an attempt to discover the outcome of an upcoming engagement with the Philistine army, Saul seeks out a witch to contact the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel. By her means of divination, Samuel’s spirit is seen rising, who delivers a message of imminent doom for Saul and his lineage.

This eerie story is no joke. It’s part of the scriptural witness to the events of Israel’s actual history. And this scares me, because it gives us that portal into the reality of a world of spirits and forces far beyond what we normally see. The New Testament is riddled with the activity and defeat of angels of darkness, the “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers of this dark world,” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (cf. Eph. 6:12).

As a child, I loved Halloween. Not only was it a treat (pun intended) to dress up as Spider-man or a shark (with about twelve layers of sweaters underneath to battle the windy, 40-degree Michigan weather, of course) and collect a year’s worth of candy, but I enjoyed the mild spookiness of it all. When I was about six years old, my dear mom read to me an issue of Cricket magazine about folklore of the British Isles, including witches, banshees, druids, Jack-of-the-Lantern, and the like. I was fascinated. So the thought of going out for a night to walk in the darkness, with the wind howling and silhouettes of leaf-bare trees lurked around us—we did our trick-or-treating in a pretty open rural neighborhood—enthralled me. Even years after I stopped donning the concealing garb and running around with a pumpkin-like candy bucket from McDonalds, I still had a thing for tales with dark eeriness, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown and Ethan Brand.

Those same NT epistles that reveal the darkness of “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4) reveal that we are “sons of light” and “sons of the day” (cf. Eph. 5:8-21; 1 Thess. 5:5-11; 1 John 1-2). We are freed in the risen Messiah into a newness of life and the hope of a world in which no moral evil shall dwell. This gospel, allegedly brought by St. Patrick, transformed the British Isles. What was once a land of druidic nature-worship and fellowship with the spirits of the natural realm, with its practices of bone-fires (marking whether one would live or die in the upcoming year), sun-worship, and sacrificial rites done in fear of the powers, became a place where evil retreated in the advance of the Kingdom of God. “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

November 1 is All Saints’ (Hallows’) Day, a time the church has traditionally set aside to rejoice in the lives of Christians who have died and entered the eternal light of heaven. Yet “All Hallows’ Evening” is anything but a night to honor the deceased faithful in Christ, the “communion of the saints” we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. It’s a night to dabble in the occult, to wet our toes in darkness.

But what does this mean for our present, Hallmark-ized version of Halloween? Surely Protestants can have an alternative celebration of Reformation Day. (October 31, 1517, is when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany.) But what do I make of this holiday I have normally enjoyed so much? It seems to me that the Scriptures are mixed in these regards, often leaving it as some sort of “gray area.” First Corinthians 8-9 appear to make it okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, so long as you have the strength of conscience to know that no such idols or other gods actually exist. Yet a strong warning is given in chapter 10 to those who sought to dabble with paganism out of their superior “knowledge.” Some Israelites knew they served the true and living God, yet they mixed it up with the other deities, thinking they wouldn’t get burned. The result? God cast their dead bodies across the wasteland to be eaten by jackals.

I’ve seen first-hand the occult wickedness of Wicca practices and Walpurgisnacht celebrations in Germany. It’s creepy. And my mother and I swear we’ve felt another, cold presence of some kind in our old house on more than one occasion. Satan is not one to be toyed with. Just like with the witch of Endor, dark beings that operate against God’s good rule are truly present.

So at least for this year, I can’t participate in Halloween without some reservations. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, especially in a neighborhood that gets totally decked out for this un-holiday. But one thing I can be sure of: I can praise Jesus, who drives out demons by the finger of God and has broken the powers of Satan and his minions (Luke 11:14-23; John 12:31; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 20:1-3).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bonhoeffer reprise?

Robert Mugabe has got to go. The dictatorial leader of Zimbabwe has not only corrupted the country, bankrupt his people, and caused 90% unemployment and 14,000% inflation; he is now disbanding churches, banning church leaders, and slandering clerics. This guy is insane, and he has got to go. He is doing nothing but harming his entire country's welfare, while lining his pockets and defending his ego. (Hollywood even made a movie indirectly about Mugabe--The Interpreter--which he banned in Zimbabwe.) It's like the Third Reich all over again. The only thing he isn't doing is out-and-out committing some sort of genocide or ethnic cleansing--but who's to say that won't come soon?

We who are baptized and call ourselves Christians are citizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the world. We are called out by God to live holy lives of faith in and service to his anointed king, Jesus, while simultaneously living in the world with our neighbors and as citizens of the USA or Germany or Brazil . . . or Zimbabwe. As such, out of love for our neighbor, we must put their good ahead of our own and do what is best for the people of our nation whom we are called to love.

In the desperate times of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist regime, the
Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) saw its dire position and the difficulties of being stretched between two kingdoms. A group of these men saw it as their duty to rid the world of Hitler out of love for other people and for the common good. One of these men was pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was eventually imprisoned and hung for his complicity in a plot to kill Hitler. Many Christians have balked at his actions, citing quickly "Thou shalt not kill!"

Could Bonhoeffer and his fellows have been right? Bringing down a wicked despot would never rid the world of sin and evil; a new one will soon rise up from elsewhere. Such is the nature of this "present evil age" (Galatians 1:4). But would the loving thing to do for the sake of others actually be to rid the world of such a corrupt tyrant and inept leader? Is Zimbabwe at a time where they need another Bonhoeffer? Certainly they need to be ever more so the Confessing Church, standing upon the rock of Christ's lordship and wielding love, mercy, and forgiveness against the evil that seems to reign (Matthew 16:13-20). But can we call it love to just "turn the other cheek" and allow Mugabe to carry out his devices? I'm torn and cannot say.

Please pray for the saints in Zimbabwe.

As the mountains surround Jerusalem

This past Saturday was quite an adventure. I had originally planned on going with a cool coworker of mine (and fellow Michigander), Shawn, to the National Folk Festival here in Richmond. But instead I took up an offer to go hiking at White Oak Canyon in the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

After we all met up, we finally set out for the supposed six-mile hike at 3:30 P.M., giving us plenty of time to finish the Class 4 trail before 7:00 sunset. However, at about 6:00 we realized that we had missed a turnoff we were supposed to have taken--and thereby lengthened out trek to some twelve miles! Knowing that there was absolutely no way to make it back before dark, we stopped to watch the sunset over Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in the SNP. As I looked over the rolling, timeworn mountains I recalled God's promised protection as potential danger and uncertainty loomed for us: "As the moutains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore" (Psalm 125:2).

I love the fall!

We made it through the rest of the night, hiking mostly downhill for the next few hours. The steep, rocky, sidehill path was difficult to navigate in the dark with only a handful of flashlights and headlamps. But at 9:40, some three hours after sunset, we arrived safe and sound back at the trailhead.

My friend Josh, with Hawksbill Moutain over my right shoulder

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The nature of faith

In his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied John Murray writes about the nature of faith as knowledge, as conviction, and as trust. I find what he says about faith as personal trust to be pretty sweet stuff:
Faith is knowledge passing into conviction, and it is conviction passing into confidence. Faith cannot stop short of self-commitment to Christ, a transference of reliance upon ourselves and all human resources to reliance upon Christ alone for salvation. It is a receiving and resting upon him. It is here that the most characteristic act of faith appears; it is engagement of person to person, the engagement of the sinner as lost to the person of the Saviour able and willing to save. Faith, after all, is not belief of propositions of truth respecting the Saviour, however essential an ingredient of faith such belief is. Faith is trust in a person, the person of Christ, the Son of God and Saviour of the lost. It is entrustment of ourselves to him. It is not simply believing him; it is believing in him and on him. (pp. 111-2)

Murray then goes on to emphasize that faith does not save, but we are saved by Jesus Christ, who is the Savior, by means of our faith. Our faith is a receptive vehicle, the open hand (as Luther calls it) that receives the work of Christ for us:
It is to be remembered that the efficacy of faith does not reside in itself. Faith is not something that merits the favour of God. All the efficacy unto salvation resides in the Saviour. . . . [S]trictly speaking, it is not even faith in Christ that saves but Christ that saves through faith. Faith unites us to Christ in the bonds of abiding attachment and entrustment and it is this union which insures that the saving power, grace, and virtue of the Saviour become operative in the believer. The specific character of faith is that it looks away from itself and finds its whole interest and object in Christ. He is the absorbing preoccupation of faith. (p. 112)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Triune intercession

It never fails. Whether I pray or read my Bible in the evening, I almost invariably fall asleep in fatigue. The same happens in the morning before I get leave for school. In these stressful, needy times--and when isn't it the "time of need" (Hebrews 4:15)?--I feel like I need to pray even more than usual. I need God to guide me, support me, strengthen me every day, all day. Yet I can scarcely do so in prayer. Whenever I quiet down that much, I just fall asleep or I can't focus.

But in his goodness the Holy Spirit recently brought to my mind a vital and wondrous truth: the fullness of the triune Godhead is praying for me. In Romans 8 it says that in my times of weakness, exasperation, even coma, "the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (v. 26). How can the Spirit's prayers for those whom he breathes life ever fail? "And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God [the Father]" (v. 27). Not only does the Spirit himself pray to the Father, but the Father has gladly revealed his will to the Spirit, giving him what to pray for each of his adopted children!

What is more, the Anointed Son himself, approved and vindicated by God in his everlasting reign at the Father's right hand, also prays for us without end. "Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" (vv.34-35a).

In a miracle of mercy, the whole Trinity is involved in unceasing prayer for me, upholding me. There is no worry, confusion, or disagreement among the three Persons. The Father has revealed his will, which is prayed by the Spirit and which was and is accomplished in the Son, who ever lives as our Advocate (parakletos, 1 John 2:1-2; used in John 14, 16 of the Spirit). I need not worry that I fall asleep in prayer; God himself prays for me!

You have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
(Psalm 63:7-8)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Dissatisfied with the Sabbath

Just imagine Mick Jagger belting out, "I ain't got no (dah-dah-dah) satisfaction!"

Today at church (WEPC again) the pastor taught about Hebrews 6:13-20 and the absolute confidence we can have in God's promises. The absolutely sovereign King of the universe, whose will shall never be thwarted, has not only given us his word of promise that was first pledged to Abraham, but he has backed it up by a self-maledictory oath, "two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie" (see Genesis 15). But what it is that he has promised, and what we personally hope for, may be two different things.

As the weeks of school progress--my fifth week commences tomorrow--I've found myself each week seemingly further inundated with take-home planning and grading that eats into my weekend. It was my original desire to get as much done on Saturdays as I could, so that Sundays could truly be a Sabbath rest, a day off given solely to worship corporate and private, reading, and the recreational pursuits I enjoy, such as nature walking, running, and photography. But now I find myself with about three more hours of work yet today. Blech. This is something I really need to work on; Saturdays offer so much to enjoy, namely, cookouts and MSU football.

I have been able to do a lot of enjoyable things with my weekends this fall, don't get me wrong. But there's something that just feels lacking about the whole notion of a weekend and a Sabbath. Each week I eagerly await the two days when I get to relax a bit and not have to deal with failing teenagers who, no matter how much structure and coaching I provide, DO NOT EVER DO THEIR HOMEWORK! Every Sunday evening, the shadow looms of another week of poor student progress, of the difficulties of planning good lessons that include fore-thoughtful classroom management and diverse instructional strategies, and of the sixty-odd hours of work I bang out each week. I never feel wholly rested, never fully eager to tackle what challenges the next day will bring.

But maybe that's how it's supposed to be. Maybe we're not supposed to be satisfied even with the beautiful rest of the Sabbath and the joys of corporate worship of the risen Lord in church. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews urged his audience (Jewish converts in Rome?) to remember that the present Sabbath-rest was not the fulfillment, was not the Best that God had to offer. It wasn't about entering the Promised Land of Canaan. It wasn't about their freedom from creative labor one day out of seven. There was rather a greater "Sabbath rest" for the people of God to look ahead to (Hebrews 4:1-13). And this rest is still ours for the taking, offered by grace, received by faith alone, and secured by the sure and steadfast Anchor, Jesus Christ our forerunner (6:19-20).

The fulfillment of our final rest is still in the future. God does not promise to us complete joy, satisfaction, and rest in these present days of our lives. Perhaps that longing for more fun, more refreshing sleep (perhaps I should get a real bed and stop sleeping on an air mattress), and more satisfaction with my life and labor is not a deficiency, but rather the echo God has put in our hearts of the true Hope to come in the fullness of God's kingdom. And this Hope that will come for all who are not satisfied with what this life offers but instead "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (11:14).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ignoring Gutenberg

I just today became aware of an amazing Bible project called the Saint John's Bible, a project that began in 1998. Using the NRSV as its text (with Apocrypha), its goal is to visually translate the Scriptures into a present Word that is beautiful to the eyes as well as the ears. Each calligrapher or artisan painstakingly sets to his craft on the canvas of some 1,150 stretched
calfskin vellum pages. "The entire process flies in the face of modernity's worship of speed and efficiency," writes Jennifer Trafton of Christianity Today. "This is no longer the Middle Ages. We have the printing press. We have computers. What does the handwritten word have that the mass-printed word doesn't? The Saint John's team hopes more Americans will ask that question."

I really appreciate the seemingly profligate expenditure of time and money to create this Bible
a la the medieval scribal traditions of Roman Catholic monasteries. It's an extravagant waste. Perhaps we in the Evangelical world so value getting God's Word into everyone's hands and getting it worked into every detail of our lives that we've lost some of its reverence. In many Catholic and Orthodox worship services, canticles of praise accompany the entrance of God's Word into the sanctuary. Even Jewish and Islamic calligraphers pore over making their scriptures beautiful. Ought not we do the same?

With our super-crammed schedules--or at least schedules that are poorly prioritized and organized--we modern Americans are so quick to demand everything
right now. The ubiquity of television dinners and fast food, high-speed Internet access, and cell phones with mobile e-mail make us think that a life lived faster and more simply is a life better lived. Patience is so passe. This is probably why poetry, a literary form exalted in other regions of the world, is all but dead and left in the gutter in the U.S. It's not practical. It takes a long time to read and appreciate. And who thinks in words like that? Surely poets need to get a life and a real job.

Even in my daily life I find hurry and instant gratification to be at the fore of my goals. I daily fuss and ponder over whether or not my students are growing and if I'm cut out to be a teacher. I am incredibly frustrated with the lack of reading and thinking skills displayed by many of my tenth- and eleventh-grade students. As if sixteen years of lack of parental involvement can be overcome in the three weeks I've taught so far! I find myself placing demands on myself and my students that are simply unrealistic. We've got another eight-plus months together; we've got a lot of time. I
need a lot of time.

Our life is but a breath, it's true, if we choose to neglect the living God and squander our time. It will be wasted in fruitless vanity. But for those of us who want to live a Godward life, we find the word "patience" splattered all over the pages of the Bible (or perhaps finely inscribed upon the pages of the Saint John's Bible). Co-opting Nietzsche's words, the ever-colorful Eugene Peterson calls our life "a long obedience in the same direction." And God himself says the same. He calls us in one place "oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may display his beauty" (Isaiah 61:3). Oaks are ancient trees, only maturing over many decades into the stalwarts we swung from and climbed upon in the days of our youth. In like fashion, we are elsewhere called God's "workmanship" (Greek
poiema, from which we get the word poem), lives marked out for love and crafted for worship since before the ages began and only now called into being (Ephesians 2:10; cf. 1:4; 2 Timothy 1:9). The Ancient of Days is himself just fine with patient waiting. Perhaps poetry isn't so dumb after all.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Both near and far

Two blog posts in one day: that's what happens when I have a Sunday free and lots on my mind.

Yesterday was the first unofficial day of fall here in the Commonwealth. When I left to go running in the morning, the air had a new kind of coolness that I hadn't felt in a long time. (In fact, all I felt was stifling heat and humidity for weeks on end.) Underneath gray skies, as water droplets left from the overnight rain dripped onto me, I was actually a bit chilly for a few minutes. There's hope for this state yet.

You see, I love the fall season. It's hands-down the best. Sure, summer has baseball, long days, and green fields rich in corn and sugar beets--at least in Michigan. But fall has the cool, crisp air that invigorates my spirit. Pumpkins. Wheat fields gold for the harvest. The brilliant radiance of leaves losing their chlorophyll. The World Series. College football. Fall's got it all--and it's right on time.

But though I may be near to the best time of the year, I feel farther than ever from Istanbul, and I miss it a lot. In the words of my friend Leanne, "I miss Turkey so much my soul hurts!" Over the past week or two I have been constantly flipping through my photos from that now-distant land, listening to Turkish music, translating recipes and the Gospel of Mark into English, and adding Turkish touches to my meals (chickpeas, yogurt, olives).

Galata Tower and the Golden Horn at dusk

My crushing longing to be back there might simply be because, in two years' time there, life became familiar, doable. Sure, every day brought new excitements and challenges. But trying to stay afloat in this new world of high school teaching is wearisome. I feel right now like all I want to do is get back over there and find a job, any kind of job, and share the truth of Jesus with the multitudes who don't know him. I looked at my world-map shower curtain last night and thought to myself--or actually I probably said aloud to myself--"Just find a way to get me back, and I'll go! Now!"

But there's a lot of water that needs to pass under my proverbial bridge before that happens. I've only taught two weeks. Even a full school year is hardly enough time to evaluate my enjoyment of and confidence in performing such a job. I need a few years. Plus, my job will allow me to save up a little for any future calling in life, whether that be seminary and some sort of pastoral/teaching ministry or a graduate degree in environmental biology.

Rumeli Hisar and the Bosphorus

It's time to be patient and trust God for what's comes my way today, knowing that he will provide for me and direct my steps (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Lessons from Turkey, part VI

“You yourselves know how it feels to be aliens”

One of the first things I noticed that had changed in me after even my first year in Turkey was my view of foreigners living in the U.S. I felt for the first time that there was some sort of connection between us. Spending two years as a total yabancı (“foreigner”), it became easy to share the plight of those seeking a better life in the United States. I had all sorts of difficulties speaking the language, which at first made me feel very isolated from everyone else. Riding the ferry boats across the Bosphorus, sitting on the bus (or, usually, standing), or walking through the crowded streets of a fifteen-million-person megalopolis can be isolating and startling enough as it is. But it was so much worse to hear everyone else talking, laughing, or reading the ubiquitous newspapers—and not know more than a few words here and there of what they are saying. It was like a whole world around me was literally passing me by, without my inclusion or participation in it.

When it came time to buy groceries, that usually went alright. (Though finding some finer things like nutmeg or cream of Tartar proved exceedingly difficult with my broken Turkish. Yani, o tarçinin tatı benzen bir bahar istiyorum ama tam tarçin değil. Fıstık gibi bir şeyten dovranılır. Buralarda bulabilir miyim acaba?”) But calling the boiler repairman; asking directions to one of the millions of impenetrably steep, cobbled çıkmaz streets; or figuring out why every pedestrian and driver stopped dead in his or her tracks at precisely the same moment on November 10th—these could be sources of exceeding frustration.

Flag sellers near Taksim Square during a holiday

All over the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Israelites are given admonitions to treat kindly the foreigners sojourning in their lands. “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Likewise in his sojourn in Palestine Jesus became acquainted with all the pressures, griefs, and temptations of human life. As such, he does not pester and plague mankind, but patiently bears with our shortcomings and aids all those who seek his help. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Compassionate living in the image of God means that we are quick to help, not to chide; that we are eager to extend the help that we ourselves receive daily.

The "honey gourd" seller who daily peddled his produce near my apartment

Here in Richmond there are a lot of immigrants. On top of the usual myriad Hispanic people, there are large Bosnian and Sudanese populations. I think it’s such a great thing that local churches are coming alongside them to share the love of Christ by meeting their practical needs—housing, furniture and supplies, tutoring, job placement, child care, etc. A large number of my students struggle to speak and read English. When I was younger I probably would have complained, “Come on, you’re in America. Quit being so lazy and learn English!” But that has changed. Now I know what it feels like to be an alien; I understand what they may be experiencing. I know how hard it is to learn a new language if your best friends and housemates or family aren’t speaking the new language.

And if your paths cross with an immigrant in need, don’t ask for his green card. Just help him in the way Christ now hears and helps you, bearing your every need before the Father.

Monday, September 10, 2007

How precious to me are your thoughts!

On Saturday evening I went to West End Presbyterian Church to see an Indelible Grace concert. (If you're not familiar with them, they take old hymns and set them to newer musical arrangements.) But it was perhaps the opener, Richmond-area native Chris Lucas, whose music left the most memorable moment of the night. His first song was about how nothing ever "occurred" to God. Our omniscient and all-wise Father has never had a moment of ignorance, has never thought in his mind, Gee, I never thought of that before!

After a very taxing week of school--a large number of my biology students are non-native English speakers struggling to read simple sentences, and the rest lack much of anything in the way of motivation--I felt nearly swept away in a torrent of unwarranted, faithless anxieties.
How will I make it another 178 school days? How will I help these teens to succeed? How can I get them engaged and interested? And on top of that, being down to a few hundred dollars and not getting paid until the month's end, Will I have enough to pay my hospital bill from last month and still have food and gas this month?

But Chris's song put some life back into my heart; nothing ever "occurred" to God--the God who keeps watch over me and who never slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). That evening I read Psalm 139:17-18, and a passage of it finally clicked that I was always somewhat perplexed by:

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

Of all the thoughts and worries that race through my mind and upset it, they are worries that are the fruits of but my puny, finite understanding and experience. I worry because I can't see the future. But my Father sees and knows vastly more than I can comprehend or imagine, and it is
he who watches over me to guard my steps and supply nourishment for all facets of my faith and life. There is no thought, no situation, no circumstance in my life that escapes the All-Knowing, whose thoughts toward me are as innumerable as the grains of the shore's sand. Even the fact that daily I awake and am still with him ought to give me rest and peace. After all, I spend six or seven hours every night completely void of any activity. During the night I neither provide for myself nor protect myself from illnesses and from Satan's attacks. Yet morning by morning I rise again, not because of my own agency or because my fretting achieved something fruitful, but because the Lord watched over me and kept me alive.

So with Hagar I can call upon
Lahai-Roi* and say, "Truly here I have seen him who looks after me" (Genesis 16:13).
*"The living one who sees me"

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The first day(s) of school

Yesterday was the first day of school. My life as a science teacher has officially begun.

Because we're on block scheduling, I met only with my third, fifth, and seventh blocks yesterday. Most of what I had to do was explain my expectations, grading, rules and consequences, classroom procedures, and the like. In chemistry, we also began some laboratory safety stuff. It's a real shock for me to be in classrooms where the majority of my students are not white, yet it didn't really feel that weird. I noticed it, for sure, but I mostly thought, These are teens--normal teens.

By the time I left the school at 6:15 and then spent the next hour-plus grocery shopping, I was totally wiped out. I was dead tired, my throat was hoarse (remedied by drinking two mugs of hot chamomile tea with honey in 90-degree weather), and I had an hours-long headache. I was hungry--so hungry and tired, in fact, that the leftover Hamburger Helper I nuked in the microwave became the best meal ever. It was like joy to my soul just to sit down and eat and not put any more effort into anything (the hour of planning later that night notwithstanding). Talking with my friend Olivia over the phone also lightened my load; she also had her first day of class teaching fifth grade in Chicago. The words of Psalm 69 came to mind on account of my dimming vocal cords and the kids who instantly said of my chem class, "I don't want to be here. I'm just taking this 'cause there's an SOL [mandatory Commonwealth of Virginia subject-area achievement test]."

I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.

More in number than the hairs of my head
are those who hate me without cause.

But today was a lot better. It wasn't much different, but I wasn't nearly as drained or exasperated. My students worked quietly as directed and participated as requested; fifth block was a new class, as it were. I found out at least one of my students is likely in a gang. Several of my biology students aren't native English speakers, and I mean they struggle noticeably in reading fairly basic sentences. But God, in his lovingkindness, upheld me today in response to all the begging, Father-help-me-or-I-die prayers of the past few days. May he ever be praised!

I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
(Psalm 40:1-3a)

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Are the sacraments means of grace?

Stick around something other than an Anabaptist-derived church long enough, and you’ll probably hear the phrase that the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist or communion)—are “means of grace.” This thought used to trip me up a lot, as good Lutherans and Presbyterians would teach that the waters of Holy Baptism, as a means of grace, somehow miraculously channeled salvation-power to little babies and broke the stranglehold of the sinful nature.

This line of thinking sounds rather ludicrous, if not at least difficult to understand, as long we think of God’s grace as some sort of “justification juice.” But grace is not an ethereal, impersonal substance hiding between the layers of matzo your church uses for the Supper. It is rather the personal favor and benevolence of a holy God upon needy sinners. Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, ID, clarifies this:

But how is it possible to see the sacraments as efficacious, which the Protestant fathers certainly did, but at the same time recognize that they have no magical power in themselves? We must not think of ourselves as empty receptacles and the sacraments as filled decanters, full of spiritual juice, which are then poured into us. Rather than seeing the question of the sacraments as this kind as an ontological and metaphysical question, we have to see it as a covenantal and relational question. We are persons communing with God, who is tri-personal, and we do so in the sacraments. They are therefore performative acts. A man might say the words “I do” a million times during the course of his life, but when he says them in a church in front of witnesses with his bride across from him, the words are a performative act, and they change everything.

Grace is not a fluid that can fill up a reservoir. Grace is a covenantal relationship between two persons. Now the Scriptures do tell us that grace can be both added and multiplied. “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pet. 1:2; cf. 1 Pet. 1:2; Rom. 1:7). But we have to be careful not to fall prey to abstract nouns. If I pray that someone’s marital happiness will increase, I am asking that a relationship between persons will flourish and not that something will happen in their marital “tank,” something that can be checked with a dipstick.[1]

Thus the sacraments are “means of grace” in that by means of them we are offered, free of charge, all that Christ has purchased and accomplished. When we undergo baptism or later on look back upon it, we see God’s favor in including us in his covenant people and promising us remission of sins, holding out Christ’s death and resurrection to us even when we were yet too young to do anything good or bad (Romans 4:5; 5:6-8). We’re like infantile Israel, to whom while still writhing in her placental blood, the Lord said “Live!” (Ezek. 16:6). And when we receive the bread and wine, we eat what Jesus offers to sinners in and through his body and blood, broken and shed for our forgiveness (Matthew 26:26-28; John 6:53-58). Every time we partake of these sacraments, through the eyes of faith we see Christ, and in him see clearly how for us and for sinners the Triune God really is.

We may even do well so as to say that the sacraments aren’t even means of grace, that is, God’s benevolent favor, but rather we might say that they are grace themselves. They are an undeserved gift, because the whole of them bring to us the person and work of Jesus the Son as ordained and offered by the Father and understood and sealed to us by the Spirit, so that we may be brought to faith and nourished in it. “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).

[1] Douglas Wilson, “Reformed” Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the CovenantMoscow, ID: (Canon, 2002), 91-2.

Believing in the living Christ

As noted so gratefully by Confessing Evangelical, hear these wise words from the late, great Karl Barth:
Do you want to believe in the living Christ?" says Barth. "We may believe in him only if we believe in his corporeal resurrection. This is the content of the New Testament. We are always free to reject it, but not to modify it, nor to pretend that the New Testament tells something else. We may accept or refuse the message, but we may not change it."
You can read the rest of the 1962 Time Magazine tribute to him here.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Grace and unconfessed sin

A recent episode of Michael Horton’s excellent, truth-saturated radio broadcast The White Horse Inn investigates the question “What happens if you die with unconfessed sin?” This question, perhaps more than anything else, tormented my heart for years and was the key thing that led me to rejoice in the work of Christ and his complete sufficiency during the winter of 2002.

Perhaps it came in part to spending every other Sunday of my youth attending Roman Catholic worship services. Maybe it was also in part from the yeast of the bastardized gospel taught by Charles Finney and later Wesleyan/Holiness tradition teaching—evangelicalism without the evangel. But I had this belief that on account of Jesus’ sacrifice upon the Cross I was forgiven of all my sins, that is to say, all the sins that I had confessed. I was plagued by the question, What if I died with unconfessed sin? Surely such transgressions would remain unblotted from my record, and therefore I would lack the perfection God demanded, left to an eternity of conscious agony! I trembled to think that I might die suddenly in a car accident and not have time to ask for God’s forgiveness. I asked God for a slow death, so that I would be mindful to be continually in prayer for all my transgressions. Can you imagine such “slavery to the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15)? “Woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46).

But then God mercifully put in my path two real studs, Greg King and Bryan Kulczycki, who invited me to a Bible study in my dormitory. If it wasn’t the first study I attended, then it was shortly thereafter that we looked at Romans 5:6-8:

You see, just at the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Grace, true grace, suddenly clicked. I needed neither to be a “righteous man” already walking in holiness or even a charismatic “good man” who inspired valiant sacrifice in others. I needed only to be a powerless, ungodly sinner for God to love me. And if God loved me and all the world’s people so very much that he put forth his only beloved Son as a sufficient, wrath-bearing sacrifice while we were still sinners in deadness and rebellion, how then could unconfessed sin stand in his way? How could a few unconfessed sins or those known only to God’s all-perceiving eyes work against his love? Indeed, the truth became clear to me that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” once for all removing the curse of my sin in the grace of God that was “poured out on me abundantly” (1 Timothy 1:14-15).

I still didn’t quite get it—I still thought Christianity and the life of faith had a lot to do with being a good person and giving up a lot of stuff I enjoyed doing—but I found the peace of justification before God in his love (Rom. 5:1-11). Thus God’s Spirit opened my eyes to the Savior who effectively called me: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever. (Psalm 30:11-12)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Seeing Jesus from Joshua

The more I read the Old Testament, the more I love it. I've been reading through the book of Joshua the past several days, and I’ve been seeing more of what Jesus means when he says that the whole of the Law and Prophets testify about him. (I know many people are opposed to typological interpretation, but isn't it more than a coincidence that Jesus' Hebrew name is Joshua, "Yahweh saves"?)

The supremacy of Jesus over Moses.

At the end of Deuteronomy we see that Moses, despite all that he did in leading Israel out of bondage from the soul-oppressing sin-society of Egypt, was ultimately unable to lead his people across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. Instead, he died atop Mount Nebo.* It takes his successor Joshua to lead his people into the rest-land promised on oath to Abraham.

Throughout the Bible Moses is synonymous with the Law, the contract of stipulations for how Israel was to live in Canaan, that is, the typological kingdom of God. (A type is an element that foreshadows a future corresponding element, the antitype.) God demanded that every part of the Law be kept, or else horrific curses and expulsion would result. Despite all their God did for them in his great Passover deliverance and his blessings in the desert, Israel was still unfaithful to him. They bucked the Law and were subsequently forced into famine, slaughter, and exile far from the rest and peace of blessed fellowship with God. But Israel's story is our story, too. The Mosaic Law wrote in words on stone the moral image of God that has always been written on our consciences. When Adam transgressed in Eden (which Genesis records as being located within the borders of Israel's Promised Land), his fellowship with God was severed, and death and curse entered his life--and the life of all who bear the name "human" (Hebrew adam; see Rom. 5:12-21).

But a new Joshua was given to us who was both morally pure in our stead and who broke the power of the Old Adam within us, putting him to death upon the Cross. Through Jesus Christ's perfect fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15) and by grafting us into his death and resurrection-life by pouring out his Holy Spirit, he became our archegos and secures the way into the true rest promised to us by God (Heb. 4), “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10).

"Yahweh is a man of war."**
Chapters 6-12 of Joshua chronicle the battles won when "the LORD fought for Israel" (10:14, 42). Joshua led a voluntary band of Israelites to win stunning victories never before seen by the world. Yet I'm discovering that when we read the Old Testament not as an anthology of moral examples, but as the record of God's persistent plan to bless his people with the wholeness of life lived in his presence and under his grace--"the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34)--then all the stories are threaded together. Joshua is a bloody book. But it's bloody because the Jebusites, Hittites, and the like opposed Yahweh's reign and the blessing he promised to give to his people.

The second Joshua likewise rides on in victory, robed in blood (Rev. 19). Neither the law's accusations (Col. 2:14), nor Satan’s “deep guile and great might” (Heb. 2:14), nor the empires of this world (Rev. 18), nor sin (Rom. 8:1-4), nor death (2 Tim. 1:10) have been or will be able to stand against the Lord's Anointed when he fights for those who hope in him. As Joshua and his leaders put their feet upon the necks of the defeated kings, releasing them only to stab and impale them, so too has God exalted his King and put all things under his feet (Josh. 10:22-27; Ps. 110; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Eph. 1:20-23). He will fight for us and secure his promised blessing!

“So the LORD gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the LORD gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the LORD gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass” (Josh. 21:43-45).

And so it will be for us through the Lord Jesus, the Christus Victor.

*He may have died in bittersweet longing, but God’s goodness wasn’t held back forever. In Luke 9:28-36, when Jesus is transfigured in radiant splendor atop Mt. Hermon, standing alongside none other than Moses himself—within the Promised Land he missed all these years. (Philip Yancey notes this The Bible Jesus Read.)
**Exodus 15:3.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cleveland rocks!

Actually, it's Columbus that rocks--99.7 FM, to be exact. I'm a pretty picky radio listener, but this station played enough good, newer rock to keep my ears tuned in. Only 89X in Detroit and MSU's student radio, The Impact 89FM, have otherwise earned their keep on my dial.

Anyway, as I listened to 99.7 while heading out of Columbus yesterday morning en route to Richmond, I heard an ad for a "gentleman's club," if you know what I mean. The club's name is "The Sirens," or something like that. Their jingle beckoned listening males (or females, I suppose) to "heed the Sirens' call."

Of course, those who know their Greek mythology and have read Homer's Odyssey know that the Sirens were an enchanting group of women standing on the shores of a narrow, dangerous passageway between the islands of Sirenium scopuli. As sailors navigated the needlelike route between the islands, the Sirens beckoned them with their alluring, ethereal voices. Those men who listened were led astray, and their ships were dashed to pieces against the jagged rocks of the shoreline. How fitting is it that the Sirens' name is now attached to the tempting pleasures of pornography and cheap nudity with women!

Of course, we have two ways of dealing with this destructive sin--this sin to which neither I nor any man is immune, this sin which degrades women as mere bodies to be used and viewed for one's pleasure, this sin which says we can have "love" and "intimacy" and "sexuality" for no more cost than a few bucks out of one's wallet. We can be like Odysseus, who plugged his crewmen's ears with beeswax, opting that he himself be tied to the mast in order to still hear their song while staying "safe" from danger. We can steel ourself against temptation, thinking that we have the power to dabble with it and not get burned. This much won't hurt me, we think. It will stop here; I'm in control of this. But what a lie this is--and how easy it is to believe this lie in the face of all kinds of sins!

Or we can respond like the noble Jason. Knowing ahead of time about the dangers posed by the Sirens' song, he enjoined the service of a master violinist aboard the Argo. When they neared the dreaded islands of temptation, the violinist played his music. You see, this music was even more lovely, more heavenly, more pleasurable to the soul than that of the Sirens. By filling their senses with the music of the violinist, they passed through the straits unharmed. In like fashion, amid the persistent, daily temptations to "drift away" from the excellency Jesus Christ and succumb to lies that dull our God-senses (Heb. 2:1; 3:12-14), we are urged to fill our ears with a sweeter music. We hold the course and keep our navigation sure by beholding the beauty and supremacy and sufficiency of our Savior and Lord. "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" like a ship charting its course. How? By "fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:1-2).

Jesus knew his life map, the route he had to take. He was fully aware it was going to hurt--he had to endure the shame of being cast "outside the gate" by his people and endured the agony of impalement and death upon a cross. Yet he knew "the joy set before him," and this kept him from listening to the alluring voice of Satan when in the wilderness he was tempted to take the easy path to glory. We need to believe persistently and tenaciously the richness of life under God's reign of blessing and the beauties of fellowship with the One who loved us so much that he never once gave in to temptation and spilled his blood to bring us into the joy of life with him (1 Pet. 3:18). With God's kingdom as our polestar and Jesus' voice the music in our ears, we can say confidently with King David, "I have set the LORD continually before me; because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken" (Ps. 16:8).

Friday, August 10, 2007

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Lessons from Turkey, part V

Persecution is more than just having an awkward conversation.

In 2 Timothy 3:12 St. Paul gives the warning that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” I often wondered what to do with this verse and many similar statements throughout the New Testament. I mean, who really gets persecuted per se in 21st century America? What more would I have to endure than simply having an awkward conversation with a friend or family member? And the message often given by American Christians when non-existent “Christian rights” are violated—How dare Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hutchins write their anti-theistic books! How dare they legalize abortion! How dare Neo-Darwinism get taught in our schools!—is much like that of Islam: the religious fight back in a shouting match of who can exert the most power and reassert his rights to not be offended.

A brilliant young Turkish theologian and human rights activist named Ziya Meral, who himself became a follower of İsa Mesih when he was seventeen, gives this insight to the daily travail and grind of converts who lose the esteem of their communities:

So when a Muslim becomes a follower of Jesus, the first reason he or she is persecuted is not the belief in Jesus or any other god. In most cases he or she is persecuted because they [sic] are perceived to be betraying their national identity by associating themselves with the West. This means that to be a Christian in the Middle East is seen as a shift — a detachment — from everything that makes a person "a person." Within the strong worldview of Islam that separates the world into two camps ("us" versus "them"), the convert is now often defined as one of "them." To the Islamic fundamentalist's mind, apostates deserve death. Even if they are allowed to dwell within the community, their characters are deemed untrustworthy, their testimonies and arguments invalid. For a single woman, finding an honorable husband becomes impossible, and no family will give their daughters to a disgraceful convert. . . .

Physical persecution is temporary and heals, but this social persecution remains and takes deeper roots in the soul of the convert. A deep sense of loneliness develops with a deep-seated sense of shame. Families and old friends are now gone; the name of the convert is now an unspoken memory. A lot of converts suffer from depression, which regularly comes back, even if they emigrate to the West. Many of those who stay in the East live continually as social outcasts with a limited range of work and social interaction.[1]

I have met wonderful men and women who, early in their lives of faith, had to suffer loss of jobs, ridicule from friends, and estrangement from their families. To put it in context, imagine for a moment that you desired to live an openly homosexual life in Texas in 1950. Sure, Turkey is in many senses a modern, secular republic with religious freedom (especially as demonstrated by the massive protests this spring against the religious conservative Justice and Development Party). But even in the largest of cities, life is often governed under codes of tightly woven neighborhood and family structures of honor and approval. And a long-prevailing cultural mantra is that “To be a Turk is to be a Muslim.” (Whether or not one actually believes and practices the tenets of Islam seems to be of lesser importance.) Conversion to Christianity is therefore often, but not always, seen as a subversive act against the devlet (state) and even Turkishness itself, [2] and missionaries and church workers are slandered as Westerners working for the CIA or MI5 trying to corrupt and weaken Turkey from within to be later absorbed by Western (read: American) imperialism.

Such an erroneous mindset that led to the martyrdom of three of our brothers in Christ—two Turks, Necati Aydın and Uğur Yüksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske—in the eastern city of Malatya in April. And this crap just keeps on going. How would you like to be arrested and prosecuted for collecting the weekly offering in your church without having the official papers? We are blessed enough in the U.S. to not have to face the daily problems of believers in other countries, and the affliction of God's people by itself is never a good thing. (Just consider how many psalms speak of how God will liberate his humble, downtrodden people from their oppressors.) But we need to wake up to the reality of real persecution in the church around the world. We need to cry to God day and night for our fellow saints (Luke 18:1-8). And as we are able, we need to let them know we care for them and are seeking the aid of the Victorious Lord for them. Maybe if we quit being a complaining church and more of a church marked by radical hope in our (future) vindication, our message will have a bigger impact.

[1] Ziya Meral, A Message to the West From the Persecuted Church, Institute for Global Engagement.

[2] In the Turkish legal system, there are actually a lengthy number of punishable “crimes against Turkishness,” including insulting the republic’s founder and war general Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and referring to the sudden deaths and emigration of some 800,000 Armenians in 1915 as “genocide.”