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.