Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Don't Look a Gift Horse, er, Church in the Mouth To See if It Chews the Cud; Neither Look at its Hooves to See if They Are Cloven

With my move to Chicago's western suburbs comes a new church. As I've been involved with several Reformed/Presbyterian churches over the past few years and have seen increasingly the worth of Reformed theology, it's a little hard for me to leave that for an Evangelical Free Church. I have developed understandings (which are always developing, of course) about corporate worship, soteriology, church government, and eschatology which would, at least in part, be left behind with my new church.

In chapters 10-11 of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter has a dream in which the Lord Jesus urges him to eat from a cornucopia of animals which would normally be unclean under the Jewish ceremonial law. Peter is in shock, but he learns through it that God has opened the way for "unclean" Gentiles to himself. This is soon confirmed at Cornelius's house, where the Holy Spirit is given to many Gentiles. Peter concludes that "if God gave them the same gift [of the Holy Spirit] that he had given us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" (11:17). Barnabas comes to the same conclusion that the Gentiles in Antioch likewise were approved by God, since they bore "evidence of the grace of God" and were "true to the Lord" (11:23).

Peter had to yield his prior notions of what constituted the people of God and the marks of their worship, as God opened the door of salvation to everyone (cf. Acts 15). As good as the ceremonial laws in which Peter believed were, they were no longer allowed to supercede the true badge of God's people: faith in Jesus as the Messiah, given and sealed by the Holy Spirit. God's judgments overrode those of Peter or any other Jewish Christian.

In similar fashion, I've got things that I value about worship and doctrine. But what really is more important: valuing good and valid theological understandings, or loving the very people whom God has himself chosen? We're called as the church to love those everywhere who belong to Christ, regardless of denominational preferences, and that call includes me. The question is: Will I love doctrines or even personal preferences (however rational or biblical they may be) more than people? Am I somehow above them?

At the end of his letter to the Galatians, in which he deals with controversy over "marks of the true church," Paul urges the Galatian Christians in every opportunity to "do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Galatians 6:10). In a family, children don't get to choose their own brothers and sisters, but they are called to put aside their sibling rivalries and live in loving unity (cf. Psalm 133:1). In the same way, we're a "family of believers" because Christians are born not according to our own human wills, but by God's Spirit (John 1:12-13; 3:1-8). Faith only comes from God, so it's his choice that counts. Who am I, then, to question the church I'll be joining, those who are loved by God and given his Spirit? Who am I to look suspiciously--even ungratefully--at God's very own provision for me in people whom I can build up and who also will build me up?

Fear That Freezes, Fear That Frees

Moving to a new locale is a big deal. My future is filled with “what ifs”: What if I don’t like my new school? What if I think my town is boring? What if I don’t make friends? What if I don’t fit in at church? What if my relationship ends? What if I’m all alone? Fear like this often has a tendency to paralyze me. But Jesus speaks to his disciples about this fear that freezes:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4-7)

The Holy Spirit has graciously reminded me of the truth of this passage (even though I’m having difficulty really grasping it and finding rest at this point). Jesus is telling his disciples—his friends—about persecution and trials that will come as they follow him. They had heard their Master speak about how the religious leaders had not only killed all of God’s previous prophets, but also that they would persecute and even kill the apostles whom Jesus would send (Luke 11:47-51). Jesus was telling them not to fear the very people who would oppose them and even put them to death!

The reason Jesus gives for confidence is odd: They should fear God alone, because only he has the power to determine eternal life and death. Upon a cursory reading, it seems that Jesus is warning his disciples that they too are in danger of hell. But what I believe he’s really saying is this: “You are my dear friends; and in me you are dear to God. No detail of your circumstances will ever slip by his notice or be dropped from his hands. He watches over flittering birds; how much more will he guard you who bear his own image! You have nothing to fear in this world except the God who loves you.”

Leaving a situation in life in which I was growing more and more comfortable and stepping out into a big Question Mark is difficult. But faith calls me to live not by what if but by what is: the reality of Christ's grace, which works its power in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). The truth is that even if all else changes, my life is not over. My path does not dead-end. Life with God is never hopeless. I am often tempted to think in despair, If all my fears above come true, this is all a loss; I will have nothing; what will I do then? But if I have God and even God alone, I have nothing less than if I were to have God and every other worldly blessing. “[God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for life . . . through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3). Therefore I am free to take whatever may come, moving forward in hope, because I can know the Almighty, the Commander of Angel Armies,* as my caring, all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving Father who rejoices in doing good to me (Jeremiah 32:41).

*In the Old Testament God is frequently called YHWH Tsavaoth, the “LORD of hosts” (NIV “LORD Almighty”). These “hosts” are the legions of angels who fight at God’s bidding for the good of his people Israel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On the Move

The news is in: I'm moving to Chicago--well, to its southwestern suburbs, to be precise. After nearly three seemingly futile months of seeking employment up here, I have been offered a job teaching high school chemistry and physical science in Plainfield, Illinois, only twenty minutes from Olivia. She and I are so excited!

Though I'm reluctant to write anything about this right now because I hate to write hastily composed babble, I think one thing is in order: a word of thanks. It's easy for me to want to write about more "profound" things such as determining God's will, but really one thing is needful: giving thanks. "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). There isn't really anything more "spiritual" than simply doing these things.*

It goes without saying that it is God who has opened and shut doors and whose Spirit has provided direction and persistence for Olivia and me. It is he who has continued to give us the faith needed to see fullness beyond convenience and to trust in our Rock more than our own feelings. It is he who continues to allow Olivia and I to communicate with one another (however effectively or not). And above all it is only the shed blood of his beloved Son Jesus which allows us free access to the Holy One's throne in prayer (Hebrews 10:19-22).

But Jesus has brought us to God in this matter and intercedes for us more than just at the heavenly throne; he has been doing so through the members of his body on Earth. I owe just as much gratitude to everyone who has said a prayer for us and asked that a job would be opened up for me. Thank you!

Of course, this new job means I have a lot on my plate in the next month, thereby necessitating that I "pray continually." In only four weeks' time I will need to spend a week at home in Michigan, say my goodbyes to friends in Richmond, find a place to live near Plainfield/Bolingbrook, move all my stuff, and prepare for school! My first day "on the job" is August 14, and the first day with students is August 21. But I did nearly as much last year in the same amount of time, so I know it's doable in the Lord.

*I think it's instructive that the (Reformed) Heidelberg Catechism organizes its teaching around the three themes of guilt, grace, and gratitude. The whole of the Christian life is to be one of gratitude for our reconciliation to God and all aspects of his faithfulness and love.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Of Commas and Complaints, Part II

Why do we have grammar? The easy answer is this: to preserve clear communication. If I choose to conjugate verbs any which way I so choose or to rearrange parts of a sentence however I please, do I fault you for misunderstanding me? In the oft-quoted (and oft-misued) words of poet John Donne, "No man is an island." We are in relationship with others, whether we like it or not; and the strength of our relationships and the effectiveness of our communication depend upon the clarity of what we say and write. Grammar matters.

My latest "grammar gripe" is one that is proliferating profusely: failure to place commas in a series. A series is when three or more related words or phrases are placed in a list. Here are a few examples:

Her job required her to pack quickly, to travel often, and to have no personal life.*

The colors of Old Glory are red, white, and blue.

Unfortunately, no real consensus exists about whether or not to use the second or final comma in a series. Some people see commas as replacements for the conjunction "and"; thus a comma before the word and is redundant and unnecessary. However, others see the comma as indicating a pause in speech that demarcates separate items. Here are two examples from the most recent edition of Newsweek magazine that illustrate why I strongly favor the latter function of commas:

"He [George Carlin] was mild-mannered, well read and polite to a fault--all while casually dropping F-bombs." (Kevin Smith, "Remembering a God. A God Who Cussed.")

We'll leave the inconsistent hyphen usage aside for now to focus on the effect of the author's comma (mis)usage. Was Carlin three separate things: (1) mild-mannered, (2) well-read, and (3) polite to a fault? Or does "well read and polite to a fault" serve as an appositive describing or defining his mild-manneredness? "He was mild-mannered, that is, well read and polite to a fault." Do you see the confusion caused here by failing to separate the latter two adjectives with a comma?

"I think he [Abraham Lincoln] embodies those qualities that are the very best in America: upward mobility, an embrace of the future and an ability to stand fast on principle while acknowledging the other side of the debate." (Barack Obama, quoted by Jon Meacham, "The Stories We Tell Ourselves")

This is perhaps less unclear, as the series is introduced by the fact that there are multiple qualities Obama wishes to point out. But we run into the same problem again: Are there three qualities in Lincoln, or is his upward mobility illustrated or defined by embracing the future and diplomatically standing fast on principle?

Here's one final example:

"We are looking for a house with a big yard, a view of the harbor and beach and docking privileges."*

Does your dream house have (A1) a view of the harbor and beach and (A2) docking privileges, or does it have (B1) a view of the harbor and (B2) beach and docking privileges? What is comprised in the view? What privileges do you have? It would be much clearer simply to add the final "serial comma": "We are looking for a house with a big yard, a view of the harbor, and beach and docking privileges." (Version A could be clarified by writing "a view of the harbor and the beach.")

Perhaps I'm being overly picky on what isn't even a matter of consensus among style experts. But as long as I continue to stumble over a missing flick-of-the-wrist's ink, I'll continue to contend for that second comma.

* Thanks to Merriam-Webster's Standard American Style Manual for these examples.