Friday, December 25, 2015

Why We Rejoice: a reflection on "O Come O Come Immanuel"


“O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.”

Praise be to Christ, who stepped into our lonely exile and mourned alongside us, so that he could bring us out of it and back to the Promised Land. This is no escapist fantasy that denies the reality of evil. We have a God who looked evil full in the face, allowed it to do its worst and STILL overcame it. He has come. This is why we rejoice.



“O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer out spirits by thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's dark shadows put to flight.”

Advent isn't just a season; the word means the arrival of something important or long-awaited. Another translation of this hymn phrases it, “cheer us by thy drawing nigh.” The presence of Christ should mean the presence of joy.

But I'd be lying if I claimed that I always experience that. Sometimes the gloomy clouds of night refuse to disperse. And however much we may try to ignore it, death's dark shadows will come for all of us. This is why we still pray for Christ to come; we don't experience the fullness of His presence yet. But even while we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can have confidence because Immanuel – God with us – has come. One day He will come again and disperse the gloomy clouds of night once and for all. But until then, we are cheered by the hope given by His promise and the profound demonstration of His love for us in His first coming. This is why we rejoice.



“O come, O come, thou Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height, in ancient times didst give the law in cloud and majesty and awe.”

It’s easy for Christians to forget that the giving of the Law was a great moment. It was the clearest demonstration of God’s character to date, a vivid picture of the majesty of the One who had just saved His people from the most powerful nation in the world by having them march through a large body of water. It showed people exactly how they were to live in light of being chosen by a holy God.

In a world that seems to be sliding back into chaos, we too long to be saved, for God to come in a show of glory and set up a just society free of exploitation, oppression and violence. And that will happen. But first God needs to make us capable of living in a just society. So He sent Christ to atone for sin and the Holy Spirit to transform us so that we can do what’s right. God has provided all we need to be ready for His glorious return. This is why we rejoice.



“O Come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny. From depths of Hell thy people save, and give them victory o’er the grave.”

Just as the ancient son of Jesse led his people into battle and struck down enemies they could not defeat for themselves, Christ has defeated our true enemies. He defeated sin by making atonement and empowering us to fight it, freeing us from its guilt and power. He defeated death by making a way for us to escape the depths of Hell and by assuring us that our bodies will be resurrected. He defeated the devil by disarming him so nothing he does can destroy us. He can tempt, but with every temptation God provides a way out. He can accuse, but his accusations have no weight, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. He can attack us, but God will protect or restore all that we lose, and Satan’s ultimate destruction is assured. The battle still rages, but the victory is won. This is why we rejoice.



“O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home. Make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.”

In moments when troubles seem overwhelming and we long to escape or when we should be perfectly happy yet our joy feels empty, we realize that every home we have known has been just a shadow of a greater home that we long for. We are homesick for a place we have never seen, where we cannot go on our own. And He has come to open the way to bring us to the place our hearts have always yearned to go. This is why we rejoice.



“O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. To us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.”

If modern science has taught us anything, it is that the universe is ordered by wisdom. Think about the vastness and complexity of our universe and the fact that everything from clusters of galaxies to the tiny particles within atoms operate according to laws that we can know and study. Wisdom has shaped our universe, and for us to live appropriately within that universe we also need wisdom – understanding of relationships and ethics and how to make good choices. And now the wisdom that ordered the universe, the Word by whom all things were made has stepped into a human form, to live a life of perfect wisdom and has shown us exactly what a human life well lived looks like. This is why we rejoice.



“O come Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease. Fill all the world with Heaven’s peace.”

The promise to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through him is now fulfilled. People from all nations come and find their deepest desire, their thirst for God, satisfied. And now we wait for the time when all our lesser desires will be met in Him or else will fade into insignificance before the light of His glory. We wait for the time when conflict between nations and individuals will cease, for evil will be restrained and we will be transformed into the image of the Prince of Peace. This is why we rejoice.



“Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” He is peace and wisdom. He is the Way. He is our mighty savior and our just Lord. He is the light who brings true joy. He is God with us. Today, let us remember his coming and celebrate the fulfillment of our hope knowing that His victory is a certain as though it were already complete. Today, let us rejoice.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Son of God (poem)

“Behold the Lamb of God,” the Baptist cries
The Christ repents of evil not his own
He steps down to the chilling stream that once
Gave way before another Joshua,
That those he led might reach the promised land
Now he descends into the surging deep
The waters rush above his head, and then
He rises, breathing deeply once again
The cloudy curtain of the heavens tears
A Voice proclaims him God’s beloved Son

The Lamb up to the slaughterhouse is led
To bear the weight of evil not his own
Guilt pulls him down toward death as mockers shout
At him to save himself, but he will not
That those he leads might reach the promised land
Thus He descends into the damp, dark grave and waits
To rise. But now He yields His dying breath
The sacred curtain of the temple tears
A man declares, “This was the Son of God.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Tale of Two Nations

An article I wrote about the paradoxical nature of the United States inspired by C.S. Lewis' "That Hideous Strength" is up on the Breakpoint website.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Review of C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy

Last week, the Colson Center posted a review of C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy that I wrote on its Youth Reads page. The page is dedicated to young adult fiction, and while the space trilogy isn't written for young adults, I read it in high school.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part IV: Some Solutions

In my last post, I discussed the low view of the Bible held by many scholars in my field, Biblical Studies. This view raises a number of questions for me, which I’ve grouped into two broad categories: questions about the reliability of the Bible and questions about the value of academic Biblical Studies. Here, I’d like to present some of the answers I’ve come to.

First I’d like to examine questions related to the truthfulness and consistency of the Bible. I have three ways of dealing with them, which I’ve summarized in phrases starting with r words, because I can!

The simplest step is to reject the assumptions of materialism held by some scholars. Jon Collins, whom I quoted above, made the argument in his introduction to the Old Testament that the stories about Elijah and Elisha must be fictional because they include miracles, which don’t really happen. Similarly, he wrote concerning Genesis 3, “The appearance of a talking snake should alert even the most unsophisticated reader to the fictional nature of the story.” But if you don’t presuppose that supernatural answers are impossible, there’s no reason to assume that these narratives can’t be historical. Those who believe in miracles do not take the mere fact that something is a miracle as evidence that it didn’t happen.

This is a pretty straightforward solution, but it doesn’t solve every problem, because not every event in the Bible is a miracle. We need other approaches to deal with questions about the natural events it records.

It helps to recognize what exactly is at stake in the specific question we’re dealing with. There are some traditions about who wrote what in the Bible that go beyond what the Bible actually says. For example, tradition says that Moses wrote Genesis, along with the rest of the Pentateuch, but Genesis never says it was written by Moses. So if it were proved that Genesis was written by someone other than Moses (a question I am not currently taking a position on), that wouldn’t mean that the text itself is in error.

It’s pretty common for Biblical scholars to consider Biblical books to be composed of multiple books. The most common example of this is the Documentary Hypothesis, which says that the Pentateuch is actually composed of five sources identified by the letters J E D and P. But scholars make similar moves with other books, too. We don’t necessarily have to oppose all of these moves. If 1 and 2 Samuel, for example, are composed of multiple sources, this doesn’t really affect our faith. God can inspire several writers and editors just as easily as a single one.

But there is still a problem. The reason why scholars see a need for multiple sources is because they think the text as it stands is contradictory. And while a true document can be composed of more than one source, a real contradiction does mean that at least one of the conflicting statements is false. So the next and most difficult way to deal with questions about the Bible’s accuracy is to try to resolve those contradictions. This is the approach I took in my earlier series on 1 and 2 Samuel. There, a superficial reading showed the texts to be contradictory, but looking at them in more detail showed that they not only didn’t conflict but also complemented each other well.

The second set of questions I raised was, if academic study of the Bible does not promote faith, why bother with it? Two reasons come to mind.

First, academic study can deepen our faith, make us more confident that the Bible is in fact God’s word and lead to applications.

I discussed this with my father a few months ago, and he compared it to music theory. When performers are playing or singing, they are not usually thinking about music theory, but their knowledge of the theory does improve their performance. Similarly, knowing theology might not directly change your Christian practice, but it will do so indirectly.

For example, my understanding of the idea of kingship poses a potent challenge to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace,” an idea that is sadly prevalent in many churches today. Israel’s problem, as I understand it, is that they want a messiah (remember, the word “messiah” means someone who is anointed, such as a king) who will deliver them from the consequences of their sin without asking to repent. Sound familiar?

And the second reason why evangelical Christians need to engage in theology, particularly Biblical studies, is that other people who don’t take the Bible seriously are doing so. C.S. Lewis’ comments about philosophy apply equally well to theology.

 “If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part III: The Plot Thickens

This is the third post in a series on my first year of my master’s program.

My first year of graduate school has been interesting and fruitful for me. However, I’ve also been a bit disillusioned by it. I came in somewhat na├»vely thinking that Biblical Studies would approach the Bible primarily as a serious theological text with the goal of understanding precisely what it taught. In fact, I discovered much scholarship focused instead on seeing the Bible in political and historical terms, as a document that tells us about its time and its writers (who frequently aren’t the same people tradition says they are).

This certainly isn’t a bad thing. The Bible was written by human beings and for human beings (although it was also inspired by God). There is very much to be gained from seeking to understand the Bible the way its original readers did. However, focusing exclusively on political and historical influences can lead to overlooking broader theological points. And in practice, these approaches tend to undermine not only the authority but even the basic accuracy of the Bible. It is presented like any other historical source, and as no more reliable than, say, The Illiad.

Frankly, I was shocked at certain scholars’ skepticism and dismissiveness toward traditional views of the Bible and even toward the text itself. I read things like the following:

“No type of writing could possibly contain the inconsistencies, doublings back, apparently aimless changes of style, of titles for God, of narrative tone, that these books [the Pentateuch] encompass. For one man to write such a text, he would have to be mentally incoherent or disturbed, or – and here source criticism really begins – he would need to be using a lot of already existing material which, for whatever reason, he was unable to change, and setting it down in all its inconsistency.” – John Barton

 “Rather than ask whether a text is revealed (and by what criteria could we possibly decide?) it is better to ask whether a text is revelatory, whether we learn something from it about human nature or about the way the world works. A text that is neither historically reliable nor morally edifying, such as the book of Joshua, may be all too revelatory about human nature.” – John Collins

As a Christian Bible scholar, these types of comments raised a lot of questions. They basically fall into two categories:
1. Are these scholars correct in saying that the Bible is incoherent and self-contradictory? That would mean that at least some of it is untrue, and therefore not the word of God.
 2. If the Bible is reliable, the fact that scholars can spend their lives studying it and come away with the conclusion that it isn’t raises questions about their methods. Does this mean that academic study of the Bible is a waste of time, or worse, dangerous to faith?

Of course, to completely answer these questions, even in my own mind, would take much longer than a year. But in my next post, I’ll share the answers I’ve come to so far.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part II: Great Blessings

This is the second post in my series on reflections from my first year of studying theology in graduate school. You can read my first post here.

My first year of graduate school was filled with some great opportunities. As planned, I took two semesters each of Greek and Hebrew. It was intense. I would not recommend starting both languages at the same time if you can avoid it. However, I did learn a lot and am now reasonably competent with both languages. That is, I can read “real” texts with extensive help from dictionaries.

I also had a chance to TA and get a taste of teaching at the college level. Since this is one of my possible career paths, it was helpful to get a taste of what teaching is really like. Chronologically, the class covered everything from the Gospel of Mark (probably the earliest book in the New Testament) to Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI). Obviously we didn’t read everything important that was written during that time, but the class did give me a chance to read some classics that I hadn’t gotten to yet.

During my first semester of graduate school, I took a class on early Christianity with John Cavadini. He’s a very interesting and compelling lecturer, and he really focused on the theological ideas of the thinkers we were dealing with. We covered the first through fourth centuries, which had some really great theologians (and some not-so-great ones, by which I mean heretics).

I also had a wonderful class on Genesis with Gary Anderson. We focused mostly on the story of Joseph, which was different from most Bible studies on Genesis I’ve been in, which focused on the beginning. We read a book that I’d highly recommend, Jon Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. His book deals with a reoccurring pattern of sons being sacrificed and then restored to their parents that appears throughout the book of Genesis. The obvious example of this pattern is Isaac, when Abraham nearly sacrificed him on Mount Moriah. But Levenson also brings in Abel, who dies because God prefers him to Cain; Jacob, who is also prophesied to rule over his brother but has to flee his home because of it (and then returns); and Joseph, the beloved son whom his father believes to be dead, but who actually survives and saves the entire family. Levenson doesn’t go into the fact that Jesus also fits this paradigm (nor would I expect him to, since he’s Jewish), but as Christians, this is exactly what we should expect to see in the Old Testament. Genesis tells the Gospel story again and again, though it does this in a way that is subtle and easily missed.

Thus, I learned some wonderful things during my first year of graduate studies. However, I also struggled with some aspects of the field of Biblical Studies, which I plan to discuss in my next post.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part I: How I Got Here

In a little over a week, I’m going to start my second year of my master’s program in Biblical Studies. This summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I learned over the first year, and I’d like to share some of my experiences.

The first question is: why did I begin this program in the first place? Before I started graduate school, I lived for a while in Taipei. One thing I did there was leading Bible studies for ESL students. The Bible study, which was called Friday Night Live, brought in a lot of non-Christian students who just wanted to practice English, as well as many Christian students.

At first teaching a Bible study was frankly terrifying. I have a tendency to impose ridiculous expectations on myself and to imagine worst-case scenarios: “If I don’t do a good job teaching this Bible study, our new non-Christian students won’t come back. They won’t have another opportunity to hear the gospel and they’ll die and go to hell, and it will all be my fault!” But one day I was having a conversation with a counselor I was going to, and I confessed some of my fears to her.

She said, “What is the goal of the Bible study?”

I said, “Well, people come to learn English, but our goal is to help them come to know God, or for the Christians to know Him better.”

“Right. And whose responsibility is that?”

Not mine. From that point on, I tried to turn to God when I felt worried about the Bible study and ask for help. And every single time, He came through. Often, the weeks when I went into the Bible study feeling the most exhausted and unprepared were the weeks that went the best. The Holy Spirit just took over, and I spoke far better than I normally would have. After a few years, Friday Night Live was my favorite part of the job.

I think while I was at Bible study, I must have had a flashing neon sign above my head that said, “Ask me the hard questions.” I got questions like, “What’s the difference between socialism and communism?” “Does the kingdom of God include Hell?” and “If God wants us to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ why did He create gay people?” I did my best to answer these questions, but I also got very comfortable saying “I don’t know” or “Let’s talk about that after class.” I also tried to look up answers for some of them. I actually really enjoyed talking about the hard issues and had some amazing moments when answers came to me that I hadn’t known before. It was thrilling to see God working so clearly, and this convinced me that I wanted to do more teaching, maybe even full-time. And for that, I needed graduate school.

The next question was which sub-field of theology I should focus on. I decided on Biblical studies, also because of my experience overseas. I observed that even the most poetic Chinese songs didn’t work nearly as well in English, even when they were translated accurately. It occurred to me that the Bible also might lose something in translation, even when those translations were made by very competent people. So I resolved to learn Greek and Hebrew, and the most efficient way to do that was to do Notre Dame’s program in Biblical Studies. What I found when I started the program will have to wait for my next post.



Thursday, August 6, 2015

Harmony: An Anniversary Poem

A few days ago, on August 3, 2015, my parents celebrated their 35th anniversary. I wrote this poem to honor them for their commitment and love. The older I get, the more deeply I realize what a blessing it was to grow up in their family.

Harmony

That summer day, long years ago,
You stood with hands and hopes entwined.
You spoke and merged two lives in one.
As on that day the church bells chimed,
The silent songs of both your lives
Rang forth in joyful harmony.
Each voice distinct, you sing as one,
An echo of eternity.

And flowing from those living chords
New lives one day began to be.
I, child of your vows, now stand,
A witness to your unity,
For though I did not see the day
When life and life were joined in one,
I’ve seen the flower but not the seed;
I’ve danced to music then begun.

I’ve seen you laugh and talk and kiss
And look into each other’s eyes.
I’ve seen you give each other rest
Amid your sorrows, toils and sighs.
I know that discord must have come,
And sought your music to deface,
But dissonance was soon resolved
By your resolve to offer grace.

Commitment like a castle stood
To guard me in my early years.
Into your walls of love I’d flee
When I was overwhelmed by fears.
And though I now have left your home,
No matter what I see or do,
I know that lifelong love is real,
For I have seen true love in you.



Wednesday, July 29, 2015

I Must Speak: Abortion

We live in a world full of injustice. And what can one voice do? I do not know, but I know this: one voice speaking can do more than ten thousand silent tongues.

We live in a world full of injustice. And there are so many causes worthy of attention: slavery, murder, rape, terrorism and persecution of so many different groups. I cannot speak about everything. And yet, I must speak on something first, or watch in silence as all continue. For too long, I have sat, holding (what I think are) the correct views, but saying nothing. Ideas that remain in my head do no one any good.

As anyone who is aware enough of current events to read my blog will know, three videos of Planned Parenthood officials have been released over the past few weeks. Some debate has occurred over whether the practices discussed in the videos are better described as “selling baby parts” or “donating tissue.” Frankly, the issue of whether the organs are being sold or donated (with the clinic receiving compensation) is beside the point. It’s a bit like arguing over whether a serial killer stole a victim’s wallet. The issue is where the organs are coming from in the first place. The “tissue” in question here is undeniably human tissue – human lungs, hearts and livers. They’re available to be sent to researchers because the humans to whom those organs belong were killed. Yes, the humans in question were not fully developed. But my friend’s 2-year-old son isn’t fully developed either, and his parents can’t just decide to “terminate” him, however many tantrums he might throw. I hope these videos will help people see abortion for what it is – the dismembering of a living, growing human being. Next to that, any ethical concerns about compensation for donating what is left over pale in comparison.

That’s really all I have to say. It’s nothing that hasn’t been said before many times, but maybe adding my voice to the chorus will help in some small way. At least it’s better than silence.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Isla Formosa (To the tune of "Hotel California")

One of my hobbies is rewriting song lyrics. It makes me laugh and helps me feel less stressed. This one is inspired by my time on Taiwan, which the Portuguese called "Isla Formosa." It's a very appropriate name, because it means "beautiful island."

Note: You'll probably enjoy this more if you have the lyrics to "Hotel California" in mind as you read. Part of the "game" is keeping the lyrics as close to the original as possible while changing the meaning enough to relate to the new topic.

Isla Formosa

On a dark city side street, humidity in my hair,
Warm smell of choudoufu,* rising up through the air,
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
Was growing hungry, so I wandered in
To the night market that night
There she stood at a snack stand; I heard the music’s beat,
And I was thinking to myself, “How do all these people fit in this street?”
Then she gave me a smile, and she showed me the way
There were voices everywhere I turned,
I thought I heard them say,

“Welcome to the Isla Formosa
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place) such a lovely place
We can make room on the Isla Formosa
Any time of year (Any time of year) You can find it here.”

Her mind is not very twisted. She’s got a scooter so small
She’s got a lot of Hello Kitty shirts and wears them all
Then we hike up the mountain, sweet summer sweat
Sometimes it is sunny; always I get wet
So I said at the tea stand, “Please bring me my tea,”
And he said, “I have run this tea stand here since 1993.”
And still those voices are calling from far away,
Wake you up in the middle of the night, just to hear them say,

“Welcome to the Isla Formosa
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place) such a lovely place
Living it up on the Isla Formosa
Such a nice surprise (Such a nice surprise) Eat some mango ice.”

Flowers on the treetops, bubble tea on ice,
And she said, “You should try the food they sell here; it is very nice.”
And in my friends’ apartment we gathered for the feast
Grabbed it with our wooden sticks but we can’t eat all the meat
Last thing I remember I was headed for the plane
Back to the place I was before, where I had to be again
“Relax” said the people. “We are eager to receive
“You can fly back any time you like, but you won’t want to leave!”

* Chinese for stinky tofu. It is very appropriately named. Much like Formosa.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

How Treebeard Destroyed the Ring

This past semester, I listened to The Lord of the Rings in the car during my commutes to and from campus. Every time I read this book, something different about it stands out to me. This time, it was the question of which characters are the most important.

Note: The following explanation presumes that the reader has read the Lord of the Rings books, largely because it would take too long for me to summarize them. If you haven’t read them, GO! READ THEM NOW! The Internet will be here when you get back. (Not that I have strong feelings about this or anything.) If you’ve only seen the movies, you’ll probably understand this post, but I’d urge you to read the books anyway. They’re so much better.

Warning: This is a very geeky post, but it does have a point. Read at your own risk.

Who is The Lord of the Rings really about? Nine characters set out on the quest to destroy the ring, but only two actually make it to Mordor. Frodo is the one carrying the ring and thus the apparent hero of the story. But Frodo would never have made it without Sam, who keeps him focused, encourages him and dramatically rescues him when he gets captured by orcs. Sam is also one of only two characters in the history of Middle Earth who willingly give up the ring (the other being Bilbo). Go Sam! But if Frodo hadn’t gone on the quest, Sam wouldn’t have been there either, and even if he was, Gollum would have killed him during the first encounter. So both Frodo and Sam need to be present. But they don’t actually succeed in their mission. Gollum does, of all people. So maybe he’s the hero.

But the whole Frodo-Sam plotline only takes up half of the last two books, if that. Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom if Aragorn hadn’t marched out to attack Mordor, drawing away all the orcs that were patrolling it. No one else could have pulled that off. It only worked because Sauron was worried about Aragorn, who was king of Gondor and who Sauron thought had the ring. And Sauron only thought that because Aragorn had used the palantir, which he wouldn’t have done if Pippin hadn’t (accidentally) revealed what it was by looking into it. And the whole let’s-send-our-entire-army-out-as-a-diversion plan was thought of by Gandalf. So Aragorn, Gandalf, and Pippin are the heroes.

But Aragorn couldn’t march against Mordor without an army. And if the battle of Pelennor Fields had been lost, or even gone on much longer, there wouldn’t have been enough surviving troops for him to go to war. As it was, he barely found enough soldiers. And the first part of the battle went very, very badly. So what turned it around? Eowyn’s killing of the Witch King, who was the general of Sauron’s army and also its most powerful member. He kept Mordor’s troops organized, along with doing massive damage to Gondor’s army by himself. If he had not been killed (which, remember, could only be done by a woman), Aragorn would have had no army and Frodo wouldn’t have made it to Mt. Doom. So Eowyn is the hero. But the witch king would have killed Eowyn instead if Merry hadn’t stabbed him at just the right moment. So Merry is the hero.

One additional point appears at the very end, when the triumphant heroes visit Isengard. There they learn that Treebeard and the ents had been patrolling the area around Isengard and had destroyed several bands of orcs that had gone after the armies of Rohan. If the ents hadn’t been there, the orcs would have attacked the company that included Eowyn and Merry. The riders of Rohan would probably have defeated the orcs, but the fighting would have slowed them down. If it wasn’t for Treebeard, Eowyn, Merry and company would have arrived too late to win the battle, or if they did make it in time, Gondor’s troops would have been decimated. Aragorn would not have had an army to march against Mordor, the orcs would have stayed in place, and Frodo would never have reached Mt. Doom. Thus, Treebeard is the reason the ring was destroyed, which makes him the real hero.

Why am I writing this? Some would say it’s because I’m a geek who thinks too much. And I would not dispute that. But there’s also an encouraging point in here for people like me who are idealistic and want our lives to change the world.

Great things are done, not by isolated individuals, but by groups working for a common purpose. And the varied strands of individual lives are woven together in ways we could never predict. The heroes are not just the ones who do spectacular things and gain the applause and admiration of the crowds. Heroes are those who do their part, even when they aren’t on the front lines. Our job is simply to fulfill our callings. The Author of history will see to the rest.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Rest

This poem was inspired by a walk on a warm summer day. I was feeling anxious and uncertain about my future, but the beauty of the world around me reminded me of the truth: I don’t need to change the world to be valuable. I am already covered and enfolded by God’s grace.

Rest

Wind breathes on the trees, and they whisper of grace
In the warmth of the sunlight I feel Your embrace
Gracious Lord of all peace, You are here in this place
And I rest in Your merciful hand

I come here with wounds from the world and its lies
That taught me your love and Your gifts to despise
And yet You have heard my ungrateful heart’s cries
And You healed me and taught me to stand

I stumbled before Your throne, weary and sore
Despite all my striving, still utterly poor
Yet you heard my request, and You gave me far more
Though I never could meet Your demand

You’ve saved me from sin, but how slowly I learn!
I grab at hot coals, though I know that they burn
Yet always You call me; I hear and return
And I cling to my God’s nail-pierced hand

Spirit, breathe on my soul, and infuse me with grace
May I cease from all striving and trust Your embrace
May I walk in Your presence till I see Your face
And I rest in the true promised land

Friday, May 29, 2015

See Him Rise Above the Heavens: an ascension hymn

 See Him rise above the heavens, He who once from heaven came
Taking back His rightful glory, served by angels’ hands of flame
Perfect image of the Father, radiant glory once sent down
Now the angels bow before Him; now He wears the victor’s crown.

See the Lamb who made atonement, for His sinful creatures died
Raised to life, and now to glory, seated at the Father’s side.
No more sacrifice is needed; your redemption is complete.
Cleansed by Him you now can boldly stand before your Father’s seat.

See Him when, in times of sorrow, hope is hidden from your eyes,
When the world erupts in bloodshed; when you drown in fears and lies.
Know that He who loved and saved you holds the cosmos in His hand.
He will overcome this darkness. He will give you grace to stand.

See Him now; await His coming once for all, all things to claim.
He will speak, and sin will shatter. All will bow before His name.
Heaven and earth made new in beauty with His holy ones will sing:
“Jesus, Lord of earth and heaven, we adore You, Savior, King.”

Inspired largely by Hebrews 1

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Darkness Before Easter Dawn

In the hours before dawn, the women rose, gathered their spices and went to anoint Jesus’body. He was their friend, their teacher, and in one case, their son. The one person who knew their hearts completely and loved them still. The person who had given them hope that God had seen the misery of His people and was going to help them. The person who had healed sickness and cast out demons and even raised the dead. But now he was the one who was dead.

They had watched him take every agonizing step up Golgotha. They had seen the pain on his face and seen those long nails sticking out of his wrists. They had stared, unable to tear their eyes away but wishing they could. They had wept and wondered why God would allow this injustice and why the best man they had ever known would have to suffer so, and why they would have to lose him.

But by Sunday morning, their tears were spent. They must have found some way to numb the sorrow, to block it up in the bottoms of their hearts and roll a stone over the entrance. They busied themselves with preparing to anoint the body and with worrying about the stone at the entrance to the tomb, because the alternative was just too painful.

We, too, feel pain that is the same in kind if not in degree. We lose those we love. We watch friends get hurt. We see the injustice of the world and mourn for victims of senseless violence. We feel hope, only to have it crushed. Some of us wonder if there is anything left to live for.

But power is at work in the hour before Easter dawn. Even as the women trudge along the dark, stony path to the tomb, angels descend, and the stone is rolled away. Air fills the lungs collapsed by crucifixion, the hands pierced by nails move, His eyes open, and the soul of the man who spoke and laughed and cried and loved returns to His body. He is risen.

And those three words breathe life into souls that were nearly destroyed by sorrow. The injustice is righted, the loss is restored, the pain is healed. Hope is not only rekindled, but it blazes forth as brightly as the sun that now rises above the eastern horizon. He is alive, not only in our hearts but in reality. And because He lives, we also will live.

It’s now the day after Easter. The songs are sung, the decorations are coming down, and the chocolate is, or soon will be, consumed. It’s Monday, and people are going back into the drudgery of work. Life presses in with its various problems: sick children, quarrels with loved ones, disasters on the news, and pain hidden in our hearts.

But the Resurrection is not just a story. It is a historical event in which the raw, physical reality of death was reversed. Jesus had – and still has – a body just like yours but now transformed. He experienced all the struggles of your life and more. But He has overcome all that evil, and someday, He will return to destroy evil forever.

Friends, Christ is risen today and every other day. Remember that next time you feel the darkness pressing in on you. Jesus is alive.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 3)

In my last post, I looked at some passages relating to the Israelites’ request for a king and Samuel’s response to it. These passages describe the Israelites’ request as a rejection of God as their king. But I argued that the problem was not kingship in itself; rather, the problem was that the Israelites expected the king, instead of God, to save them so that they could continue worshipping other gods.

Now I’d like to look at another passage that deals with the establishment of kingship. But instead of humans establishing it, God does. The passage, 2 Samuel 7, records God’s response to David after David offers to build the temple. God gives David some pretty extravagant promises. He says that He will establish David’s kingdom, that David’s son will build the temple and even that David’s son would have God as his father. The last point is easy for Christians to overlook because we’re used to addressing God as “Father,” but in ancient Israel, having God as their adoptive father gave kings a unique relationship with and status before God. Now, having a king is more than just OK; now the kings are tied to God more closely than almost anyone else in Israel (arguably even more than the priests, who are not called God’s sons).

One scholar I read summed up the view in this and other passages by saying, “The king is God.” But that completely oversteps what the text said. In fact, all these glorious promises come after God has refused to allow David to build the temple. In other nations, building a temple might be seen as doing the god a favor, but here the Lord is clear: David can’t do God any favors. In fact, God is the one doing David a favor by building up his dynasty. (There are some puns here making this point: both the temple and the dynasty are called a “house.”) It’s only after tearing down any illusions David may have had about helping God that God starts to build David up and give him the high status. Kings in Israel may have had high status, but they were far from divine.

But even if the king is not seen as divine, they’re still portrayed very positively, in contrast to the negative picture in 1 Samuel 8 and 12.

There’s something else to note here. Even before He gets to the promises for David’s line specifically, God makes some promises for Israel as a whole. Specifically, He says, “And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” (2 Samuel 7:10-11). Remember that kingship was established just after the period of the judges, and that as I argued last time, the Israelites were looking to be freed from foreign oppressors. Now God is offering them the freedom they crave. The problem was never the Israelites’ desire for peace and liberation; the problem was their looking for it through human systems and refusing to give up their idols.

David and his descendants are not replacements for God; rather their authority is completely dependent upon God’s. They also, in theory, will not be the kinds of kings who put up with idolatry. The building of the temple, which God also promises in this passage, demonstrates the king’s devotion to God and his role in leading the Israelites in proper worship of the one true God. Thus, they are the opposite of the type of king criticized in 1 Samuel.

David’s prayer in the second half of 2 Samuel 8 shows that he agrees with God’s assessment. He gives thanks and recognizes that God put him in his current position (v.18). He also affirms that there is only one true God: “Therefore you are great, O Lord God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears” (v. 22).

Of course, David’s descendants didn’t always keep this in mind. Some were proud and thought of themselves as above God’s law (See Uzziah’s actions in 2Chronicles 26:16-21). Others committed idolatry and led the Israelites to do the same. These promises found fulfillment to a limited extent during Israel’s history, but we are still awaiting their truest fulfilment when David’s greatest descendant, Jesus, returns to rule and bring perfect peace.


For now, let us note that the positions taken in these two passages in Samuel are not contradictory, despite the way they might appear in a superficial reading. They are coming at the same truth from two sides: A good king must be dependent upon God’s power and must seek to glorify the true God, not replace Him.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 2)

In my last post, I gave an overview of two passages in 1 and 2 Samuel that apparently give very different depictions of kingship. This post is going to look at the apparently anti-monarchy passages, and the next will look at the pro-monarchy ones.

In 1Samuel 8 two major objections to kingship appear. The first is the idea that appointing a human king constitutes rejecting the kingship of God over Israel. The second is in Samuel’s account of what kings will do; his account makes monarchy sound inherently oppressive.

Some scholars see these passages as expressions of “direct theocracy” – the view that only God has the right to govern Israel. This ends up as a kind of religiously motivated anarchism and means that having a human monarch is idolatry. I disagree that these passages actually require direct theocracy, though they would be consistent with it. I think there is a precise reason why asking for a king at this point in Israel’s history was a sin, but this reason does not invalidate all monarchy, much less all government.

1 Samuel 8 simply states that the Israelites have rejected God as their king, but in chapter 12, Samuel gives a farewell speech that fleshes out his objections in more detail. This speech starts with Samuel asking Israel whether he has been unjust as their leader. (They confirm that he hasn’t.) This in itself suggests that Samuel doesn’t have a problem with all government; after all he himself is a government leader, a judge. There’s something about kings, as opposed to judges, that he objects to.

Samuel then goes into an account of Israel’s history. As usual, the account starts with the Exodus, the point when God delivered Israel from oppression in Egypt. But most of Samuel’s speech is focused on Israel’s immediate past, the period of the judges. Samuel’s description of this period mirrors what you see in the book Judges. Israel is caught in a cycle: they turn away from God by worshipping other gods instead, so God sends other nations to oppress them, which leads Israel to repent and ask God for help, and then God sends a judge to save them. But once Israel is saved, they turn away from God again.

Eventually the pattern changes: “And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the Lord your God was your king.” (1 Sam 12:12). Israel was once again in the “oppression” part of the cycle, but instead of repenting, they asked for a king. Kings in the ancient world were military leaders, so a good king would presumably be able to drive out the oppressors. And unlike judges (who are also military leaders) kings set up dynasties. That means there would be a leader to protect Israel even after the king’s death. From a human perspective, kingship would be a way out of the political troubles the people have been having.

But Samuel is looking from God’s perspective and realizes that the problem is idolatry. The Israelites are appointing a king in part to avoid dealing with the sin of worshipping other gods (see v.10). And it is this reluctance that creates the problem. Not all kings are idols, but the Israelites were looking for one who would replace God as their savior and who would enable their idolatry of Baal and the other Canaanite gods.

There’s an application here for us, too. Remember, kings were anointed, and the word “messiah” means “anointed one.” The Israelites’ problem was that they wanted a messiah who would save them from the consequences of their sin without calling them to repent. This kind of messiah is proclaimed in many churches today.

Back in 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warned the Israelites that the king would take their sons for his army, their daughters, their crops, their animals and their servants. This sounds like horrible oppression, and that could be what it’s describing. But some of it is simple necessity. If the king is going to lead an army, he needs soldiers, who would be the sons of the Israelites. If he’s going to set up law courts and build a palace and do all the other things kings do, he needs money and labor. It seems like money wasn’t used widely in Israel at this time, so taking crops and property from the Israelites could be Samuel’s snarky way of describing taxes. My libertarian friends would like Samuel.

Even if this is the case, it highlights the folly of trusting a human deliverer more than God. A human king needs to take from the people to do what God could have done without their help. In fact, the story of Gideon shows that God can use a small army as easily as a large one. Moreover, there is a real possibility that Israel’s king could become just as oppressive as the nations they want him to save them from.


Thus, the problem with kingship in 1 Samuel 8 isn’t monarchy as a form of government. Instead it’s the view that a human king can save people from God’s judgment without their repentance. Next time, I’ll look at 2 Samuel 7 to see what kind of kingship the Bible does approve of.